The year is 1938. The place is Paris, France. An undocumented German physician (Charles Boyer, Algiers) comes to the aid of a penniless woman (Ingrid Bergman, Anastasia) roaming the dark streets of the European city.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“A refugee without a passport has lost his membership in the human race.”
Arch of Triumph is a triumph (no pun intended) of mood and atmosphere. The film presents a bleak vision of pre-WWII Europe, a sort of purgatory on earth. It’s a thoroughly interesting movie, featuring stinking chiaroscuro images and dark moments of despair. Unfortunately, the film’s narrative has some structural problems.
The screenplay was written by director Lewis Milestone and Harry Brown (A Place in the Sun) and was based on the 1945 Erich Maria Remarque book of the same name. Milestone had previously found great success directing an adaption of Remarque’s 1929 book All Quite on the Western Front (Milestone’s 1930 version of Remarque’s 1929 novel won an Oscar for Best Picture). Arch of Triumph may not look as tidy as All Quite on the Western Front, but the film definitely packs an emotional wallop.
From the very first scenes, director Milestone establishes a tone of hopelessness and instability. Arch of Triumph doesn’t have a single moment that’s pure joy. Even the few romantic interludes are filled with tension and anxiety. Russell Metty’s (Spartacus) moody cinematography and William Cameron Menzies’s (Gone with the Wind) remarkably claustrophobic sets only add to the feeling of doom and gloom.
Although I tend to find ill-fated characters emotionally draining, the superb work by Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman pulled me into the story. I do have to admit that it took me a little bit of time getting used to the idea of the very French Boyer as a German refugee (where is Paul Henreid when you need him?). But Boyer is excellent and so is Bergman. And the actors have, of course, insanely good chemistry.
On top of that, I found the relationship between the two main characters fascinating to say the least. For instance, the characters deal with chaos differently: he is a pragmatist who lives one day at a time, and she is adept at finding security blankets. Their love affair is fine as long as they stay in their respective lanes. It is only when one decides to cross over to the other side that tragedy ensues. It’s a very interesting relationship, and Boyer and Bergman work extra hard to overcome some holes in the narrative.
Bergman has the hardest job. She is working with a character that hasn’t been fully sketched. We are never given a good explanation for her erratic behavior. She is a deeply insecure woman, but where did that insecurity come from? In lesser hands, the character would have become frustrating and unlikable, but I give Bergman additional points for managing to convey a compelling sense of tragedy that’s hard to ignore.
The subplot regarding Boyer hunting a Nazi war criminal, played by Charles Laughton (Mutiny on the Bounty), didn’t work for me. In my opinion, this subplot throws the film off balance. The secondary story is purposely (and oddly) placed on the outskirts of the main storyline. In my opinion, it’s a major flaw that hurts the movie quite a bit. Laughton has only a handful of scenes, so it is essentially a glorified “cameo.”
Conclusions and Final Thoughts:
Visually and thematically, Arch of Triumph can also be described as noir — the film has all the ingredients of a fine postwar noir. Anyhow, despite being over two hours long, the film feels a bit incomplete (I’ve read that the original director’s cut was much longer, which may or may not explain a few holes in the characterizations). Regardless of its imperfections, Arch of Triumph is gritty movie that has some brilliant moments and great performances. Remade in 1984. B&W, 133 minutes, Not Rated.