The Scar (1948)
Inescapable Fate by Guy Savage
“It’s a bitter little world full of sad surprises and you don’t go around letting people hurt you.”
In the world of noir, fate plays a pivotal role, and that is never clearer than in the surprisingly good noir film The Scar (AKA Hollow Triumph). Directed by Steve Sekely, and based on the novel by Murray Forbes, this tight little film illustrates fate’s inescapable grasp through its main character, career criminal John Muller (Paul Henreid).
When the film begins, John Muller is about to be released from prison. The warden’s assistant reaches for Muller’s file and begins to read aloud: “college educated, medical school” and then stumbles over the phrase “specialized in psychiatry.” This clever, minor scene establishes that Muller is smarter--at least in some ways--than those in charge of his lock-up. Muller’s background is further explored by the warden who picks up Muller’s file and continues with the details: “respectable background, medical school” but then comes the appearance of the criminal side of Muller’s nature: he “practiced [psychiatry] without a license” and also “sold stock in a non-existent oil well.” But it was the shift from white-collar crime to a payroll holdup that led Muller to the slammer, and now he’s about to be released. The warden has a job arranged for Muller in a medical supply house--a job that pays a measly $35 a week and which the warden either misguidedly or cynically decides matches Muller’s previous line of work. With a bus ticket to Los Angeles, Muller is supposed to step out of prison into a humble job, and the warden predicts that Muller will be back inside before long.
The film’s opening scene and its emphasis on Muller’s background raises the inevitable question, just where did Muller’s life go wrong? Muller seems to have little in common with his hard-working, respectable brother, Frederick (Eduard Franz). In one scene the brothers confront each another, and Frederick, the brother who’s followed the straight and narrow path admits admiring his criminal brother’s refusal to follow a treadmill life of middle-class respectability:
“You ran around, good times, girls. You were special. You never followed the rules. There were no rules for you, would you believe it? I think I wanted to see you get away with it. You were everything I wasn’t. Everything I wanted to be. Everything we’d all like to be. Only we knew better. We don’t take chances.”
While Muller is intelligent, this intelligence is warped by aggression and violence. Muller is obviously a capable man with years of medical school under his belt, but at some point, Muller’s life took a dive off the deep end from a life of respectability into a violent career of opportunism and the dead end of a prison sentence. The underlying--and unspoken question raised by the reading of the files--why Muller decided to pursue a life of crime seems to be answered by Muller’s behavior upon his release. Met at the prison door by his old pal Marcy (Herbert Rudley), instead of taking the bus to LA, Muller wastes no time getting back in tight with his gang. There’s even a hooker waiting for him in the back seat of Marcy’s car, and the emphasis shifts from ‘where exactly Muller went wrong’ to a sense of amazement that this violent hood ever warmed a seat in medical school in the first place.
But Muller’s reunion with his gang doesn’t go smoothly. With Muller cooling his heels for 2 years in prison, his fellow hoods have gone soft. While they haven’t exactly gone straight, most of them now hold jobs on the fringes of society. One of Muller’s pals, for example, works in a poker parlor. When Muller makes it clear that he’s ready to make a hit on a gambling joint, his gang members express reluctance. After all, the intended target, considered almost impregnable, belongs to a vicious hood with a reputation for getting even. Coercing and threatening the gang into cooperating with the heist, Muller argues: “I have to whip you guys into picking up a fortune.” Too afraid to refuse, the men in Muller’s circle of crime bend under intimidation and their leader’s force of personality.
When the heist goes horribly wrong, Muller is on the run from the vengeful owner of the casino, and he decides to head for the job in California originally arranged by the prison. Here, Muller begins the job in the medical supply company, hoping to maintain a low profile and buy time until his enemies forget about him. But Muller has a hard time accepting the humiliations of being a glorified office boy. Punching a time clock and goaded by his boss, it’s just a matter of time before he explodes.
In Los Angeles, fate intervenes when a man confuses Muller with the eminent psychiatrist Dr. Victor Bartok. Muller, ever one to take an opportunity handed to him, waltzes into Bartok’s office. Here he sizes up the place, and it’s as though he’s trying it on for size. We can almost see the wheels turning in Muller’s brain. The psychiatrist has a great set-up. A swanky office, a lucrative psychiatry practice, and there’s even an adoring beautiful secretary (Joan Bennett). It’s almost too perfect. Muller needs to hide out, and Bartok’s life seems made-to-order. But there are two problems standing in Muller’s way: the inconvenient presence of Dr. Bartok, and the fact that the good doctor has a scar that runs down one side of his cheek.
In one sense, Bartok’s life seems to represent an ironic alternate universe for Muller. After all Bartok has everything that Muller could have achieved if he hadn’t turned to crime, and Muller seems to realize this. Just as Muller’s brother, Frederick can’t help but feel some envy at his brother’s disdain for working 9-to-5, there’s a degree of envy in Muller’s hungry gaze as he looks around the Dr’s office and absorbs every detail.
While most people would stop with just envy for the sort of life they will never have, Muller decides to go all the way, and he seizes the opportunity to simply step into Bartok’s shoes. It seems to be the perfect plan--almost too good to be true, and of course, since this is a noir film, it is too good to be true, and inevitably fate catches up with Muller. However, while the film sows the seeds of audience expectation in one direction, fate’s merciless, indifferent and leveling hand comes crashing down from an entirely unexpected direction, catching Muller and the audience completely off-guard.
Lovely Joan Bennett as Bartok’s loyal and besotted secretary, Evelyn Hahn plays an interesting role. She’s the second person to mistake Muller for Bartok, but in her case, since she’s in love with Bartok, her mistake is significant, and Muller rather callously courts Evelyn in order to use her. Evelyn Hahn is a woman whose many disappointments in love have created a hard-edged veneer of disdain. She accepts Muller’s courtship even while she tries to preserve her emotional distance. Evelyn is a fascinating character. In love with her employer, Bartok--a man who doesn’t return her affections, she transfers her feelings to Muller. Later, she accepts Muller as Bartok’s impersonator a little too easily, and one scene even registers Evelyn’s shock when she realizes that Muller has stepped, quite literally, into Bartok’s expensive shoes.
Both of The Scar’s main stars, Joan Bennett and Paul Henreid’s careers suffered setbacks shortly after making the film. Joan Bennett, who has the only significant female role in the film, is perhaps best remembered for those noir greats Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945). Although The Scar wasn’t the lovely Joan Bennett’s last film, her career took a serious nose-dive following the 1951 scandal in which her husband, Walter Wanger, shot and wounded her agent, Jennings Lang. While Wanger’s career managed to survive the subsequent scandal, in Hollywood’s double standards of the time, Joan Bennett’s movie career was virtually destroyed. Joan Bennett’s most memorable line in the film (and one often quoted) rings ominously true: “It’s a bitter little world.”
Paul Henreid’s career also suffered a setback after a brush with the House Un-American Activities Committee. A victim of the McCarthy Red Scare, the fact that Henreid, a native of Austria, became a US citizen in 1946 didn’t help, and he was subsequently blacklisted in Hollywood. And there’s an irony here as Henreid was previously blacklisted by UFA, Germany’s Nazi-controlled film industry. Today Henreid is best remembered for his role as Victor Laszlo in Casablanca (1942).
The Scar isn’t a title that leaps to mind when considering film noir, and it certainly doesn’t make many top noir film lists. However, the film’s premise: attempts to escape the inevitability of fate simply result in ironic manifestations of fate is expressed perfectly through the film’s tidy plot. In trying to avoid his fate, Muller steps into a life he could very well have earned if he’d kept on the straight and narrow. But even though fate seems to throw Muller a lifeline, he only steps from one hell straight into another. As both Evelyn and Muller’s last ditch attempts at redemption are smashed by fate’s sheer indifference, the film’s greatest irony remains that Muller is ultimately not punished for the crimes he’s committed but for the sins of another.
“It’s too late and what’s the use? You can never go back and start again. Because the older you grow, the worse everything turns out. You don’t see what’s happening to you. It just happens. You wake up one morning and anything goes, and that’s alright too.”