Friday, April 19, 2013

THE SCAR (1948)

John Muller spent a couple of years in medical school before becoming a con man—his tricks included selling stock in non-existent oil wells and scamming people by posing as a psychiatrist. He was caught, sent to prison, and upon his release, he goes right back to his cronies. Upset that they haven’t been more ambitious, Muller gets them to join him in robbing a gambling joint run by a thug named Rocky. Things don't go well; two of them are killed and two escape, including Muller.  On the run from Rocky's men, Muller leaves town and gets a 9-5 job as a clerk, but when he's mistaken on the street for a psychiatrist named Bartok, he investigates and discovers that he is a dead ringer for the doctor, except for a scar the doc has on one side of his face. Evelyn, Bartok's long-time secretary and lover, gives him a passionate kiss before realizing he's not Bartok. Muller gets news that the third thug is dead, and soon finds himself hunted by two gunmen, so he takes drastic action: using a photograph of the doctor as a model, he gives himself a deep cut on his face to match Bartok's scar, then kills Bartok and takes his identity.  But a couple of dark ironies set in. First, he scars the wrong side of his face—the photo had been accidentally flipped when printed. To his amazement, most people don't notice, only the lowly cleaning lady; it even takes Evelyn a while to figure it out. Next, as he's settled into Bartok's life, he discovers that the doctor is also being hunted down for having big gambling debts. Evelyn decides to leave the whole situation behind and go to Hawaii, and Muller asks to come along, but with two parties wanting him dead, what are the odds that he'll make it to the steamship?

This is a low-budget but beautifully shot (by Oscar-winner John Alton) film noir that perhaps tries to cram a little too much story into its 80-minute running time. But that is one of its few faults. Paul Henreid, not one of my favorite actors, does a nice job in the lead, playing two fairly unlikeable people. Joan Bennett (pictured with Henreid) is very good as Evelyn, enough so that I'm sorry she doesn’t get more screen time. Henry Brandon is uncredited but memorable as one of Muller's crooks. Eduard Franz has a small role as Muller's brother, and old reliables John Qualen and George Chandler also pop up. The noir aspect is present in the look (lots of darkness, skewed angles, and occasional distortions in close-ups) and in the ironic plot twists. This was originally released as HOLLOW TRIUMPH, but is currently available on DVD as THE SCAR on a film noir double feature set from VCI.  A little-known film, but worth finding for noir fans.  [Netflix streaming]

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