In this classic film noir, established good guy Paul Henreid (Casablanca) plays against type as a med school dropout-turned-gangster newly released from prison. He and his gang make a mistake while robbing a casino, get pursued by the owner’s thugs, and are murdered one by one. Johnny Muller (Henreid) is accidentally hailed as a psychoanalyst whom he resembles exactly, except for the absence of a scar on his cheek. Johnny hatches a plan to take the doctor’s place and escape his pursuers, seducing the doctor’s secretary along the way. Though the movie is striped with venetian blinds, flooded with blinding headlights and packed full of established noir conventions, there are many interesting twists and deviations from the genre traditions. There is no strong positive character (such as a detective or police officer) and the sympathies of the viewer are left to rest with the criminal, who has all the ease, confidence, and tough-guy appeal of the best of the good guys and all the ruthlessness of the most desperate villains.
Hungarian-born Paul Henreid (who produced the film in addition to starring) was apparently tired of playing an endless litany of romantic, sympathetic-faced resistance fighters, political dissenters, and mysterious foreigners, and decided it was time to put his twist on the good old-fashioned American gangster. Johnny Muller is quite different from the usual noir bad guy; college-educated, suave, with a slight, sophisticated accent, and a psychoanalyst doppleganger, this character is as out of place as Henreid is in his role. Although the effect is often bordering on ridiculous, there are moments when this is used to great advantage, such as the scene of the casino robbery, in which one of Johnny’s cohorts is delayed while cutting the lights. Henreid was typecast partially because of how soft and kind his face looked, and in this scene, he is shown deliberating whether to wait for the light to go out or shoot the customer interfering with the proceedings. The view of his eyes is highly disturbing; they look as sensitive as we are always used to seeing them, but we know them to be the cold eyes of a killer. There is also a playful allusion to Henreid’s famous scene in Now, Voyager, in which he lights two cigarettes at the same time and gives one to Bette Davis. In The Scar, he rudely takes a cigarette from his psychoanalyst double’s secretary. The secretary, played by Joan Bennett, is another interesting deviation from noir traditions; she is much more believable than most of the genre’s heroines, who are either tough, glamorous beauties with dark pasts and desensitized hearts, or wide-eyed innocents running to the main character for protection. Bennett plays a woman who desperately wants to be the former type, feigning heartlessness and indifference, but her veneer cracks quickly. She cannot disguise her love for Muller and hates herself for it; “I hate everything in me, I hate you!” she cries. Her self-loathing, affection, and indecision make her a surprisingly believable and human character, consciously breaking down the femme fatale stereotype.
Also, check out the movie’s classic over dramatic hand-painted poster!