Written by Daniel Fuchs
Directed by Steve Sekely
It can be quite strange how an original idea conjured up at the outset of a new project can go awry. A clever concept is one thing, but building a cohesive, interesting story around it is a much taller challenge. A good, imaginative story, when mishandled by creative team members not on the same page, can sour very quickly, the fate nearly suffered by the 1948 noir The Scar, also known as Hollow Triumph in the United Kingdom upon its theatrical release.
John Muller (Paul Henreid), a brilliant man who studied psychology and all ailments afflicting the mind, has been released from prison after serving a term for practicing without a license with a job opportunity at a medical supplies company. From the moment he walks out of the prison’s walls, John concocts a heist that will land himself and his criminal cohorts rich: a simple matter of sticking up a casino on one of its busiest nights, the numerous patrons providing all the camouflage they will need. Said plan fails to materialize as the establishment’s enforcers pick up on the thieves, tracking them down throughout the night. John manages to avoid capture temporarily, but knowing he is a wanted man keeps the pressure on. John’s avenue for refuge proves serendipitous, to say the least, when he discovers the existence of a psychiatrist with an office nearby named Victor Bartok (Paul Henried) who looks exactly like John, save for a scar on his left cheek.
The first sign that trouble may be brewing is when a story places all of its bets on a ‘high concept,’ a singular idea from which the story develops that presents itself as unorthodox for its cleverness, in spite of being slightly contrived. Often, such stories ask that the audience accept a set of principles that would ordinarily produce eye-rolling. When handled with aplomb, a fantastic tale can be extrapolated from even the most preposterous concept. In other instances, a project can quickly flounder if the idea is either too thin to build a feature film off of or unfortunately gives rise to all the wrong execution from the writers, producers or director. The Scar finds itself planted in the latter category, pushing the limits of plausibility to such a degree that accepting the raising stakes becomes an increasingly demanding exercise.
There are fundamental queries that even the most casual viewers will be asking as they witness events unfold, even from the outset. In what is admittedly a stylistically handsome opening sequence, a prison warden reads off the the many potentially risky qualities John Muller possesses, both academic and character-wise. Fair enough, but if he is such a well-trained, duplicitous individual, one who could theoretically put his psychology training to insidious use, why release him from prison at all? The warden narrates that Muller is being released for lack of evidence pointing toward his crimes, but that is an annoyingly muddy excuse to set the plot in motion. Why bother taking that chance? Furthermore, while it may not be asking too much from the audience to believe that two people with such identical physical traits exist that one actor could play them (even though that is pushing things just a bit), having both be highly trained in psychology, thus greatly facilitating John’s passage to safety from the casino’s thugs, is reaching beyond the limits of credibility. All John must do is listen to some tapes he borrows from the doctor’s secretary, Evelyn Hahn (Joan Bennett, with whom he has a fling) to acclimatize himself to Dr. Bartok’s personality and voilà, the protagonist is ready to impersonate his doppelganger once he murders him. Adding to the comically contrived plot is the fact that John, for all his cunning and intelligence, scars himself on the wrong cheek, permitting the filmmakers to artificially boost the tension.
Another issue plaguing the picture is the casting of Paul Henreid. Henreid, perhaps best known for being the third wheel in one of the great American movies, Casablanca, does not fit the part of John Muller at all. Some actors have a special chameleonic ability to play any part suggested to them, high-class socialites, intellectuals, cops, lawyers, or murderers. Henreid, while a fine actor, is not one who can inhabit any role. It is not easy to buy him as a schemer who would engage in the acts his character performs in the picture. Henreid is too classy an individual to get his hands as dirty as John Muller’s do. Crippling his performance more so is the stilted, very ‘written’ dialogue courtesy of screenwriter Daniel Fuchs. The film is replete with exchanges that feel forced and unnatural. Noir dialogue is often accepted as being artificially stylized but also pithy, witty, comical, and wonderfully character-driven. The Scar’s dialogue attempts to embody those qualities but fails miserably.
All is not lost. Joan Bennett fares much better than her male co-star. She seems more at ease in the role of a woman who flirted with one doctor only to start falling for another, albeit one without a license. She is a tough cookie, but not so tough as to be devoid of any real feelings. The film definitely livens up and earns some pathos whenever Evelyn is part of a scene. Additionally, director Steve Sekely, whilst incapable of adding much punch to the script, is very capable at directing scenes of action or suspense. One sequence begins with John visiting his brother (Edward Franz) at a hotel where the latter lands a barrage of criticisms for John’s vile life and ends with the sought-after crook chased through the dark streets of the city, climaxing with a physical encounter on a trolley. Every moment of this 5-minute stretch is beautifully captured, fully in sync with many of the signature noir flourishes. It’s as if director Sekely was fully aware of the genre’s visual identity and through everything he knew onto the screen.
The Scar is, alas, lower-tier noir. Even though Sekely’s direction provides some memorable moments of suspense and Joan Bennett is excellent in her supporting role, the script does the film absolutely no favours, nor does the miscasting of Paul Henreid, ultimately making The Scar something of a hollow endeavor.