Noir films have their fare share of behind-the-scenes superstars, names that come to mind when people think of the genre. Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet for their two fisted detective novels, Fritz Lang for his expressionistic, formalist visual styles, and Howard Hawks for his concise, direct style of storytelling. One name that seems a little unsung, however, is John Alton. Film buffs know his name, and he gained recognition for a book he wrote on cinematography(Painting With Light), but most casual fans will probably say they've never heard the name.
That wouldn't quite be true, for as cinematographer John Alton lensed an impressive 102 movies, one short film, and the pilot for Mission: Impossible over a 40 year career. He was director of photography on one film I've covered so far this summer(Woman on the Run), and his name will pop up several more times before I'm done. Many of the films he worked on throughout the 40s and 50s would today be classified as noir, and John Alton did as much as anyone else you can think of to help define and codify film noir in the eyes of the public. His frequent use of chiaroscuro lighting, off center framing, and juxtaposed facial profiles embodied what we imagine when we think of the term film noir.
Hollow Triumph is a film that owes a great debt to the skills of John Alton. His framing and lighting enforce the metaphorical subtext of the scenes, in many cases adding a dramatic weight that otherwise might not come through. Take the shot below, taken from a pivotal moment in the film where John Muller(Paul Henreid) first gets the idea to steal another man's identity. Voice over plays through his head as he studies his own reflection, which is metaphorically apt enough. Probably a bit cliche, even at this point in the late 40s. But then notice that he's looking at his reflection through his own shadow, which is prominently figured in the shot. The mirror outside of his reflection is streaked and obscured by the light, but in the reflection his face is clear, though maybe blurry in this screengrab. This shot takes a somewhat cliche image and adds another visual layer to it, to make it more engaging to the eye, but also to add more depth to the metaphor.
Paul Henreid here is playing John Muller, a career criminal recently released from prison and on the run from a gangster he's robbed. He also, for a couple of brief scenes, plays Dr. Bartok, a psychoanalyst whose life he covets as a possible escape route. Muller is released from prison to much fanfare from the warden concerning his intelligence, and several characters remark throughout the film on Muller's intelligence, but we never see much evidence for it. He joins Gene Hackman's character in The Conversation in the pantheon of 'experts' who aren't very good at their jobs. Muller's brilliant scheme for robbing the casino owned by a widely-feared gangster with global connections(on his first day out of prison, no less) is to basically turn off the lights so no one sees him run away in the dark. This plan is foiled almost immediately when someone simply turns the lights back on.
Muller's lack of foresight extends even further, when he begins to actively plan to steal Dr. Bartok's identity. Bartok is a psychoanalyst, which is convenient because Muller has some schooling in the subject, but beyond that he's primarily clueless. He searches Bartok's office, looks over some patient files, but doesn't bother to look into Bartok's personal life, or discover if the man has any loved ones or a girlfriend(he does), or what his habits are. Bartok has a prominent facial scar, and Muller is smart enough to give himself an identical scar before making the switch, however he's caught in the act partly because he puts the scar on the wrong side of his face.
Steve Sekely's direction, combined with Alton's cinematography, is consistently inventive, making good use of semi-abstract montage and elliptical editing. Yet something in the film failed to grab me. It could be a problem of character motivation, as no one's actions ever really feel believable. What good will it do for Muller to steal another man's life when he still looks the same and is recognizable by the gangster's henchmen? Or maybe it was the way the airless way the story unfolded, which left no room for tension or emotion. The film ends on a great note, which would have made O. Henry proud, but getting there was never much fun. At the risk of channeling Gene Shalit, Hollow Triumph felt a little hollow itself.