Film Review: Hollow Triumph (1948)

Also known as: The Scar (working title), The Man Who Murdered Himself (reissue title)
Release Date: August 18th, 1948 (Reading, PA premiere)
Directed by: Steve Sekely
Written by: Daniel Fuchs
Based on: Hollow Triumph by Murray Forbes
Music by: Sol Kaplan
Cast: Paul Henreid, Joan Bennett

Bryan Foy Productions, Eagle-Lion Films, 83 Minutes

Review:

“It’s a bitter little world full of sad surprises, and you don’t let anyone hurt you.” – Evelyn Hahn

Hollow Triumph came out at the height of film-noir but it wasn’t a major studio release. It came out form one of those Poverty Row film houses, the UK based Eagle-Lion Films.

Although, in regards to noir, Eagle-Lion had an incredible track record and made some of the best movies in the style: Raw DealHe Walked by Night and the semidocumentary styled T-Men.

Hollow Triumph, also known as Scar and The Man Who Murdered Himself, had the benefit of casting Joan Bennett, who already starred in the Fritz Lang film-noir classics The Woman In the Window and Scarlet Street. This film also got John Alton to handle its cinematography, he would go on to handle the cinematography for Raw Deal, just after this, and that is a film that is highly regarded for its visual look. Even though this isn’t Raw Deal, the film still looks magnificent.

John Muller (Paul Henreid) is a medical school dropout but he is also a savvy criminal. He orchestrates a holdup but things go awry. Evil gambler Rocky Stansyck puts Muller in his crosshairs but Muller is able to take on a new identity as a psychiatrist that looks an awful lot like him. There are some typical film-noir swerves and a lot of irony thrown into the mix.

While the story plays out well and is decently constructed, there are a lot of things in the film that seem way too convenient. If you can get passed that, you’ll find the film enjoyable and entertaining.

This is a better than decent thriller. The acting is pretty good and I have always liked Joan Bennett but that could be due to my adoration of Dario Argento’s Suspiria, three decades after this. Regardless, Bennett always has a strong presence that sort of commands attention and draws you in. Her role here is no different.

I was glad that this was featured on TCM’s Noir Alley because it may have been quite some time until I discovered this on my own. There are a lot of film-noir pictures out there and even though I’ve seen well over a hundred of them, I still uncover ones worthy of more recognition than they have. This is one of those movies.

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: Other similar films from Eagle-Lion: T-MenRaw Deal and He Walked by Night.

Film Review: Mystery Street (1950)

Also known as: Murder at Harvard (working title)
Release Date: June 23rd, 1950 (Denver & Detroit premieres)
Directed by: John Sturges
Written by: Sydney Boehm, Richard Brooks, Leonard Spigelgass
Music by: Rudolph G. Kopp
Cast: Ricardo Montalban, Sally Forrest, Bruce Bennett, Elsa Lanchester

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 93 Minutes

Review:

“Know her? Sure, I knew her. I was never close enough to smell her perfume, but I knew her!” – Jim Black, tattooist

If you’re a classic Star Trek fan, it’s hard not to have a love for Ricardo Montalban. So since I also have a love of old school film-noir, I’d definitely want to check one out that starred the man who would later become the most famous Trek villain of all-time, Khan Noonien Singh.

Also, this film features one of my favorite ladies of her day, Elsa Lanchester. She will always be most known for playing the Bride in The Bride of Frankenstein. Here she plays a sort of kooky but fun character.

While this picture is considered film-noir and very much is, it is more of a police procedural in a time when the genre was really in its infancy. Procedurals were born out of film-noir and this isn’t the first but it helped to popularize the style.

Like other early procedurals, this was filmed in a semi-documentary style. It had some good location shooting throughout Boston that added a strong sense of realism to a film that was made when Hollywood still preferred shooting in their studios and on lots.

The film boasts striking cinematography that adds to the sense of realism and enhances the picture’s organic grittiness. John Alton handled the cinematography work, which was fitting as he also worked on T-Men, a similar film in style, as well as other noirs Raw DealBorder Incident and The Crooked Way.

Mystery Street is a motion picture that showcases real cinematic craftsmanship in the way that it was directed, shot and in how well the performers handled the material. While not Montalban’s greatest role, it did show that he was a star in the making, on the verge of greater heights. It’s also nice to travel back this far in time and see him as a more capable actor than a stereotypical Latin heartthrob or as a blockbuster villain.

This is a solid picture, through and through. It’s far from the best noir I’ve ever seen but it is much better than average and helped pave the way for a new form of storytelling on the big and small screens.

Rating: 7.25/10
Pairs well with: Other film-noir police procedurals: The Naked CityT-Men and He Walked by Night.

Film Review: He Walked by Night (1948)

Release Date: November 24th, 1948 (Los Angeles)
Directed by: Alfred L. Werker, Anthony Mann (uncredited)
Written by: John C. Higgins, Crane Wilbur
Music by: Leonid Raab
Cast: Richard Basehart, Scott Brady, Roy Roberts, Jack Webb, Whit Bissell

Eagle-Lion FIlms, 79 Minutes

Review:

“And so the tedious quest went on. Sergeant Brennan wore out his shoes and his patience going from police station to police station, checking photos until his eyes were blurry. For police work is not all glamour and excitement and glory. There are days and days of routine, of tedious probing, of tireless searching. Fruitless days. Days when nothing goes right, when it seems as if no one could ever think his way through the maze of baffling trails a criminal leaves. But the answer to that is persistence and the hope that sooner or later something will turn up, some tiny lead that can grow into a warm trail and point to the cracking of a case.” – Narrator

This is a really gritty picture and it has a semidocumentary feel to it. For those who have seen T-Men, you probably can’t help making comparisons between the two. While Alfred L. Werker was billed as the director, this feels an awful lot like Anthony Mann’s T-Men. Strangely enough, he also directed this but wasn’t given credit for it. Honestly, it feels like it is wholly his film.

The film also benefits from the cinematography of John Alton, who worked on several pictures with Mann, most notably, the aforementioned T-Men, as well as his stupendous work in Raw Deal.

Also like T-Men, the story is based off of real life events. In the case of this picture, it is a fictional retelling of the story of Erwin “Machine-Gun” Walker, a former cop and war veteran that started a crime spree in Los Angeles that included burglaries, robberies and shootouts. In this film, names have been changed and so have some of the details. The criminal is named Roy and he is most wanted fro being a cop killer.

Richard Basehart was believable as the criminal and he carried this picture on his back. The actors who played the cops were also good and so was the shop owner who had an association with Basehart’s Roy. Basehart just takes over the screen whenever he is present. He’s clever, ruthless and calculated. Basehart conveys these qualities with ease and his presence is like a dark and intimidating cloud over the proceedings, ready to rain down hell.

The action in this film is stupendous and displays more energy than what was the norm in the 1940s. The final chase scene through the Los Angeles sewers is beautiful and draws parallels to the finale of the 1949 film The Third Man. The moment where Roy slides on his belly across the asphalt, escaping into a storm drain is amazing and unlike anything I’ve seen before this picture’s time of release. The moment where the dying cop uses his car to smash into Roy’s, to prevent his escape, is another great action shot unlike anything from this era or before. This is a rather violent film for its time but nothing is really downplayed or understated.

He Walked by Night is one of the best classic film-noir movies ever made. It is short and quick but it doesn’t need to be anything more than what it was. It made its point, gave us something that truly felt real and was unapologetic about it in an era where censors had a tight grip on the film industry.

Film Review: Raw Deal (1948)

Release Date: May 26th, 1948
Directed by: Anthony Mann
Written by: Leopold Atlas, John C. Higgins, Arnold B. Armstrong, Audrey Ashley
Music by: Paul Sawtell
Cast: Dennis O’Keefe, Claire Trevor, Marsha Hunt, Raymond Burr

Edward Small Productions, Reliance Pictures, 79 Minutes

Review:

“What do you know about anything? You probably had your bread buttered on both sides since the day you were born. Safe. Safe on first, second, third, and home.” – Joseph Emmett Sullivan

I checked out Raw Deal on TCM’s Noir Alley. However, I’ve known about it for a little while. It was covered and discussed in several books I’ve read about film-noir and every writer that mentioned it gave it a lot of praise. I was glad to see it in the Noir Alley lineup, as I wanted to check it out myself.

The film stars Dennis O’Keefe, Claire Trevor and Marsha Hunt. The three find themselves in a love triangle, as the two women are on the lam with O’Keefe’s Joseph. Trevor plays Pat while Hunt plays Ann. Pat helps Sullivan escape prison. However, unbeknownst to her, at the time, he doesn’t have romantic feelings for her. Instead, his heart is with a social worker, Ann. Sullivan escapes in an effort to get revenge on the brutish mobster Rick Coyle (played by Raymond Burr). However, Coyle has his own plans for Sullivan.

Burr’s Coyle is exceptionally brutal, as the film’s heavy. In one scene, he throws a flaming bowl into the face of a woman. The scene was edited to show the flaming bowl flying into the face of the audience from a first-person point-of-view, which was quite savage for a 1940s picture. After seeing this movie, I have a newfound respect for Burr, as he can play an evil mob boss just as well as a nice, do-gooder lawyer.

O’Keefe and Trevor put in good performances but the sweet and innocent Hunt really pulls you in. When she has to commit an unspeakable act, your heart goes out to her, as she’s a good person pulled into a dark web and forced to participate in the proceedings that seem so much larger than her and more barbarous than anything she should have to experience.

The thing that really brings this motion picture to the next level is the cinematography by John Alton. The man did some superb work with this film and it is the best looking film-noir I have seen. I wouldn’t say that it surpasses Citizen Kane, which isn’t really a noir, but it gets close to that level. In fact, it surpasses The Third Man, which I never thought another film from this era could do, as that film is so visually satisfying.

The film has several spectacular looking scenes. The one, for me, that really stands out is when Joseph and Pat are on the ship, about to escape the country, when Pat finally confesses a dark secret. The scene shows a side profile of Pat’s face, close-up, as it is layered over the backdrop of a plain wall and a plain clock. It is how this moment is captured that truly shows the difference between a great cinematographer and an average one. The shadows, the stark contrast, the chiaroscuro effect pushed to the extreme – it creates a real sense of darkness, despair and a small glimmer of hope that Pat will overcome whatever wickedness is in her heart and do the right thing. It is one of the best looking scenes ever shot on celluloid. Not to take anything away from Claire Trevor but this is an example of great cinematography backing up an actor’s performance and making it grander than it would have otherwise been.

There are so many great scenes like the one I just described but that one stood out the most. The film makes great use of fog and environment to enhance the effect of the noir visual style. This is a near masterpiece, overall, but it is a true masterpiece in regards to the cinematography.

Raw Deal isn’t the best film-noir but it could very well be the best looking true noir. It is certainly the best looking out of all the films I have seen in the style. That doesn’t mean that I won’t delve deeper into the noir barrel and eventually pull out something better. But out of the few dozen of these pictures I’ve seen, this one takes the cinematography cake.

Film Review: T-Men (1947)

Release Date: December 15th, 1947
Directed by: Anthony Mann
Written by: John C. Higgins, Virginia Kellogg
Music by: Paul Sawtell
Cast: Dennis O’Keefe, Mary Meade, Alfred Ryder, Charles McGraw

Edward Small Productions, Bryan Foy Productions, Eagle-Lion Films, 92 Minutes

Review:

“At last they were ready. They met on Belle Isle to quiz each other for the most important examination of their lives. They had to know all the answers. Failure to do so would mean a bad grade later on in the shape of a bullet or an ice pick.” – Narrator

This is the third out of the four Anthony Mann film-noir pictures that I’ve watched in the last month or so. T-Men is the most unique out of Mann’s noir thrillers and it is also the first movie he directed.

This is a pretty fine effort for a directorial debut. It is raw, gritty and its semidocumentary style makes it feel as real as fiction could get in the 1940s. The films sort of just lingers over you, like a brooding storm cloud where suspense builds and is waiting for that perfect moment to strike like lightning.

John Alton handled the cinematography on this film and he has always been noted for having a very strong visual style, especially in regards to noir. He would go on to work with Mann again in Raw Deal, which is one of the most visually stunning film-noir pictures of all-time. Alton took a similar approach in this film but it doesn’t have the extreme chiaroscuro look as Raw Deal. It does dabble in chiaroscuro but I think he wanted this to match up with the semidocumentary vibe and kept things pretty real looking and less fantastical.

Dennis O’Keefe really carried this picture on his back and he did a fine job with it, which is also probably why he continued to work with Anthony Mann. He was also a major part of Raw Deal. And really, without Mann establishing the relationships he did with O’Keefe and Alton, on this film, Raw Deal might not have been the  exceptional film that it turned out to be.

T-Men is not Raw Deal and it doesn’t shine quite as brightly but it still shines.

It follows two men who work for the Treasury Department. They go undercover in Detroit and Los Angeles in an attempt to stop a major counterfeiting ring. The agents infiltrate the gang but one has to stand idly by, as his partner is killed by gang members.

This is a pretty intense film and it has a very serious tone, even compared to other noir movies. It isn’t real but it just feels genuine in ways that other noir pictures don’t.

T-Men is a very good picture and a great directorial debut. It isn’t my favorite film-noir or even my favorite film by Anthony Mann, however, but it definitely deserves to be recognized for being unique and for paving the way for Mann and his great career.