Viewer Guide: Hollow Triumph and Keep in Touch

March 14, 2019 | Richard Peña

Your weekly peek into what’s coming up next on REEL 13, written by host Richard Peña.


Hollow triumph

This week’s classic is Hollow Triumph, the 1948 film noir directed by Steve Sekely.

After his back to back successes in 1942 with Now, Voyager and Casablanca, Austrian-born actor Paul Henreid found himself boxed in by the Hollywood studio system, eager to find more challenging roles as well as branch out into producing and directing. One such opportunity presented itself in the form of Hollow Triumph, a crime drama being produced as an independent feature by British film mogul J. Arthur Rank’s Eagle-Lion company. Now in those days, “independent feature” was often a euphemism for “B movie,” meaning a low budget film produced by one of Hollywood’s “Poverty Row” studio destined for the bottom half of a double feature. But Henreid was game for the challenge, especially as it offered him the opportunity to serve as both producer and leading man.

In the film, Henreid plays John Muller, who despite six years of medical school training drifts into a criminal career. Released after a payroll heist conviction, Muller’s parole officer sets him up with a job at an LA medical supply company. But Muller is too smart—and too accustomed to the high life—to ever return to the straight and narrow, and it isn’t long before he has reunited with his old cronies to plan the robbery of a mob gambling den. Despite Muller’s assurances to his gang that he has the job “all worked out,” things don’t exactly go according to plan, forcing Muller back on the run. But while on the lam Muller crosses paths with a certain Victor Bartok, an esteemed psychologist who just happens to be Muller’s spitting image. A plan for a way out, a chance for a new life, begins to come together in Muller’s imagination. Co-starring with Henreid as Bartok’s hard-boiled secretary is Joan Bennett, by then well into the “femme fatale” phase of her long and varied film and television career.

Doubles and switched identities were staple conceits of film noir, but Hollow Triumph manages to add a few interesting twists to the standard plot device. Although the Hollywood Production Code demanded that crime must never be shown to pay, Hollow Triumph delivered the message with a darkly cynical story populated with duplicitous characters, who seem more alive and vibrant the more they stray into the shadows. Hungarian expat director Steve Sekely introduced Paul Henreid to the novel by Murray Forbes; Henreid returned the favor by hiring Sekely to direct.

Yet perhaps the true “star” of the film was the legendary cinematographer John Alton, yet another Austro-Hungarian expat who used an array of unorthodox techniques to create the film’s memorable noir style—odd angles, single sources of light, and pools of shadows in otherwise lit interiors. A strong-willed artist who frequently worked on B movies because it allowed him more control of his work, John Alton published Painting with Light soon after completing work on Hollow Triumph, still one of the great texts on cinematography, which is happily back in print. Although it seems working on the film was enjoyed by everyone, the financial results were disappointing for Henreid; his profit participation for Hollow Triumph was lumped together with the box office receipts of less successful Eagle-Lion productions, ultimately leaving the newly minted producer with little financial return for his work.


Keep in Touch

This week’s indie is Keep In Touch, a 2015 drama directed by Sam Kretchmar.

Keep In Touch introduces us to Colin Glennon, a gentle-looking young man in his mid-thirties. However, looks can be deceiving, and life has gone seriously off the rails for Colin. When we first meet him, he is listening to a self-help guru in a room full of other prison inmates, having been given jail time for a near-fatal hit and run accident. Out on parole, Colin tries to rebuild his life, but a job working for his cousin Brad at a Connecticut plant and tree nursery doesn’t give him all that much opportunity, especially since he can’t even communicate with the mostly Spanish-speaking Guatemalan crew.

One day, Colin lands upon what he think might be a solution to what ails him: his high school sweetheart. Using the internet, he sets out to track the woman down, only to discover that she died in a car accident. His search does reveal that she has a younger sister, now all grown up, who looks an awful lot like his high school sweetheart.

One might say that a thin line exists between a search and a stalk, and Colin always seems on the verge of crossing it, not totally sure of his own intentions as he goes to see the young woman, Jessie, performing in Brooklyn coffee house. Keep In Touch keeps us on edge as we begin to imagine the many ways the story might unfold.

The aftermaths of damaged lives have always been fertile territory for the movies. Audiences are given a free zone in which they can speculate as to what really happened and how those events might explain what they’re being presented. Kenneth Lonergan’s much-praised Manchester by the Sea is a classic contemporary example of this. Featuring a carefully-nuanced lead performance by Ryan Patrick Bachand as Colin, Keep In Touch offers a somber yet sometimes comic depiction of a man struggling to get back on his feet after some bad choices and just plain bad luck.

Throughout the film, scenes often shift in tone, going from comic to tragic or from spooky to melodramatic. The scene in which Colin winds up on the street in his long johns even has a slightly surreal, Buster Keaton-ish feel, complete with the inevitable reappearance of the NYPD squad car cops who have already had one too many suspicious encounters with Colin. Gabbi McPhee, who plays Jessie, performs much of her own music in the film. Keep In Touch screened in many festivals across the US, and was honored with the Audience Award at the Austin Film Festival, as well as with the Best Fiction Feature Award at the Chicago International Movies and Music Festival.

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