Viewer Guide: Hollow Triumph and This Must Be the Place

March 20, 2020 | Richard Peña


Hollow triumph

Hollow Triumph (1948)

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.


This Must Be the Place (2011)

This week’s indie is This Must Be the Place, a quirky comedy-drama from 2011 written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino.

Adding yet another remarkable addition to his cinematic gallery of astonishing eccentrics, Sean Penn stars as Cheyenne, a former 80s rock icon now living as a semi-recluse in Dublin, Ireland.  Looking like a daffy, middle-aged Edward Scissorhands with his star power dimmed to freak show wattage, Cheyenne began his retreat from peak fame following the death of two teen-aged fans who committed suicide listening to his music, a tragic incident that has had a devastating impact on his self-confidence as an artist—and as a human being.  Despite the devoted support of his down to earth wife Jane, played by Francis McDormand, Cheyenne is clearly mired in a seemingly impenetrable mid-life crisis.  Yet, he’s actually much less “out of it” than people might suspect; he’s still capable of sizing up pretty quickly, and accurately, both people and situations surrounding him, and his steadfast moral compass will in the end prove to be his saving grace. One day, he receives news that his father, an orthodox Jew from whom he’s been long estranged, is soon to die; suddenly, Cheyenne’s surprising origins begin to come into focus.  Unwittingly embarking on a quest to achieve final vindication for his father’s decades-old Holocaust humiliation, Cheyenne finds himself tracking his family history to far flung corners of the world, a journey that becomes more about self-discovery than about uncovering long-buried family history.

Judd Hirsch is featured as a veteran Nazi hunter; there are also cameo appearances by Harry Dean Stanton and Talking Heads superstar David Byrne, portraying himself as an old friend from Cheyenne’s glory days.

An Italian, French and Irish co-production, This Must Be the Place marks the first English language film by Italian director Paolo Sorrentino.  Serving as jury president at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, Sean Penn approached Sorrentino about working together after screening IL DIVO, Sorrentino’s acclaimed film about Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, which took the Cannes Jury Prize that year.  Finding inspiration for Cheyenne’s character with Robert Smith of The Cure, Sorrentino had long been intrigued with the stories of Nazi war criminals hiding in plain sight, later arriving at the idea of a faded rock & roll star as the most unlikely of Nazi hunters to give a familiar genre an incongruous new spin.  The plot point concerning Cheyenne’s traumatization from the suicide deaths of two young fans stems from an actual 1985 incident involving a duo of young men who were allegedly motivated to take their own lives after listening to a Judas Priest song.  Returning to the Cannes Film Festival with This Must Be the Place in 2011, Sorrentino’s film competed for the Palme d’Or, and later screened in the Spotlight section of the Sundance Film Festival in 2012.  Among Sorrentino’s recent projects is The Young Pope, the 10-part HBO series starring Jude Law, along with The New Pope which continues the Vatican-based saga.

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