Saturday, February 19, 2011

It's a Bitter Little World

Continuing my participation in the Film Preservation Blogathon: For the Love of Film (Noir). This is a fundraiser, folks, so send a few bucks to this link. Proceeds benefit the Film Noir Foundation and will help fund the restoration of The Sound of Fury (1950).

I sometimes have difficulty writing about movies that I love. Often, I don't know where to start, but other times, I don't have a firm grasp of what ineffable quality makes me love some films over others that are equally well made. I also run the risk of gushing. I can be an undiscriminating viewer when a movie tickles my pleasure centers just so. It's why I love so many movies that, objectively speaking, aren't particularly good.

Sometimes, though, I can identify exactly what makes me love a given movie. One such movie is The Scar (aka Hollow Triumph, 1948, directed by Istevan Sekely), a low, low budget dream fugue of a movie that has no acquaintance with realism. It's a film that follows the logic of nightmares, and most of the film instills a feeling of being pursued not just by the forces of law or by evil companions, though there's some of that, but by the hand of fate itself. This, in spite of the fact that the story is absurd on its face, and that some of its key set pieces have been "borrowed" from other movies. But none of that matters to me, really, because this movie hits the erogenous zones of my cinematic joy like few others.

I think it's the scar, but I'll come to that in a bit.

The story:

After executing a casino robbery that goes wrong, gangster Johnny Mueller goes to ground and looks for a way out. He finds it in the person of a psychiatrist who happens to look just like Johnny, except for a scar on his cheek. Johnny manouevers himself into a position to replace the good doctor and bumps him off. During the act, Johnny discovers--much to his horror--that he has put the scar to match the doctor's scar on the wrong cheek. Too late to back down, he risks it. To his amazement, no one notices that the scar is on the wrong side. During the course of the film, Johnny's relationship with the doctor's secretary grows from opportunism to genuine romance, but when she reallizes who he is and what he has done, she resolves to get out of her crummy life and sail far far away. Johnny is given the chance to leave behind his past and go with her, but unfortunately, the good doctor had a past of his own, a past that eventually catches up with Johnny...

If there is a better metaphor for the alienation and dehumanization of the post-war era in all of film noir than the scar on Johnny Mueller's face, I don't know what it is. Urban life has become so fast paced that the migration of a scar from one side of a face to the other is barely noticed. There is a scene near the end of this movie when a cleaning woman is the first person to suggest that it has moved, and Johnny almost kisses her for noticing. No one pays attention to anyone but themselves, the film suggests, and that narcissism makes us all profoundly alone.

The Scar is an arresting movie, which is something of an accomplishment given how derivative many of its scenes are and given how cheap it is. It was made by Eagle-Lion just after they bought PRC, after all, which means that the whole production was likely a marginal enterprise. So it takes shortcuts. It cuts and pastes film noir cliche`s whole, including whole scenes. The end result is greater than the sum of its parts, though. It doesn't hurt that it was shot by the great noir cinematographer, John Alton, who, absent the resources of a big studio, shoots a movie with rich visual textures anyway. Alton shoots a nocturnal city so full of menace that it's a wonder anybody ventures out into it. The Scar knows how to elide things, too. The scene where Johnny cuts his face, for instance, shows only a cigarette burning next to the tools he uses, but it's harder to endure than a graphic depiction might be.

The weirdness of its plot pushes The Scar into a kind of mythological dreaminess. This is a film about doppelgangers. When you meet your doppelganger, as Johnny Mueller meets his, you meet your doom. The implication is that you can never escape your secret self. The Scar is an epistemological freak-out, too, and signifies this with it's repeated use of photographs as evidence of what's real (and, of course, their unreliability). This movie might as well be the author of Blade Runner's obsession with photographs: In that movie, the characters who aren't really real cling to photographs as evidence of their existence and of the persistence of their memories. In The Scar , photography is treacherous, but has a role in shaping how reality is perceived.

Finally, The Scar has a hard-nosed approach that borders on heartlessness. It doesn't really give the audience an innocent to root for. By removing any trace of sentiment from its assembled second-hand scenes, it re-invents them as something fresh and nasty. The fate given to Joan Bennett's character, the doctor's secretary, is particularly cruel. She has had enough of being tough and her fragile interior is beginning to show through. She lets Johnny get under her skin and the film wrests that from her. She ends the movie in heartbreak, never allowed to know that Johnny tried to do right by her. The irony of Johnny's ultimate fate is brutal and perfect and hints at a sort of divine justice in the world, but it's cruel, too. The audience knows it's coming, but it's hard to take, none-the-less.

Fate puts its finger on all of the characters here and sends them blithely to their dooms. The Scar is as dark at heart as just about any film ever made. It's a great big impersonal world out there. You can't get attached to anyone, because, sure as tomorrow's sunrise, Fate is going to take them away from you.

It's a bitter little world.


Mykal said...

Dr. Morbius: I love this film as well. For me, it's the Paul Henreid show. I grew up watching Casablanca about a thousand times, and always liked his noble Victor, got chills when he sang the French anthem. I completely believed Bogart would give up Bergman for such a man. Then, I saw this film only a few years ago, and it was like watching a saint morph - become a heartless, ruthless thug. Now, that's entertainment!

Anonymous said...

This is a film that has vaguely been on my radar, but you've really made a case for it--I'll have to keep an eye out for it!