Saturday, March 28, 2009

Arch of Triumph (1948) [UR] ***+

A film review by Jeffrey Kauffman for on July 24, 2014.

If Parisian tour guides are to be believed (and many of them are British, so their comments must be taken with a grain or two of Francophobic salt), French insurance companies specifically deny coverage for any of Paris' insanely busy roundabouts, like the one that encircles one of the most famous icons of French history and national pride, the Arc de Triomphe. As someone who madly decided to rent a car in Paris the last time I was there (ostensibly to get to Normandy, but which by default included urban Parisian driving), I can vouch for the fact that you pretty much take your life into your hands anytime you venture into a Parisian roundabout, whether on foot or in a vehicle, and so the fact that insurance companies refuse to cover any accidents in these locations strikes me as completely plausible. There is in fact a little coterie of observers who congregate regularly at the apex of the Champs-Elysées for the very opportunity to witness a fender bender (or several) in the grand parade of traffic that marauds around the Arc de Triomphe. There's a different if no less deadly kind of danger afoot in Lewis Milestone's largely forgotten 1948 opus Arch of Triumph, a film which opens with a stunning view of the monument (plus what looks like a not very convincing miniature), as an instant visual glyph that we're in the City of Lights. It's the last few relatively calm hours before the outbreak of World War II, in a rain soaked winter of 1938, and while true hostilities have not yet broken out between France and Germany, there's little doubt that the bad guys in the film, as personified by a dapper if depraved Charles Laughton in a showy supporting role, are Nazis.

While Arch of Triumph bears literary origins, having been culled from a novel by Erich Maria Remarque which had been a bestselling blockbuster in 1945, it's more than obvious that the ghost of Casablanca (1942) rather uneasily haunts much of this film, and not only because of Ingrid Bergman's participation. (In a side note, it's instructive to note that director Lewis Milestone cut his career teeth on All Quiet on the Western Front, one of the most famous war films of all time and another film based on a novel by Remarque.) Once again, there are refugees trying to get from Point A to Point B, but being hobbled by an incipient Nazi obstacle course.

The focal refugee is Dr. Ravic (a seriously wan Charles Boyer), a physician who in Remarque's original was a German émigré now practicing (illegally) in Paris, but who is in the film unavoidably Gallic (in accent and manner if not in actual nationality) due to Boyer's inherent qualities. Ravic has escaped from being a prisoner of the Nazis, though he still bears both physical and psychological wounds from the situation. The good doctor is haunted by memories of this torture, especially since it ended up killing his wife. The Nazi in charge of the operation was a bully named Von Haake (Charles Laughton), and Ravic is absolutely certain he's seen the villain traipsing through the rainy streets of Paris. Or - is he hallucinating?

One night while strolling through, yes, the rainy streets of Paris (this is one of the most relentlessly soggy war movies ever) Ravic saves a young woman from what appears to be a suicide attempt. Her name is Joan Madou (Ingrid Bergman), and she is rebounding (none too well, it seems) from another suicide - that of her lover. Ravic brings her back to his flat to help her get her emotional bearings, and soon sets her up as a chanteuse at a local nightclub which is frequented by White Russian glitterati who have had several decades' practice at being refugees. The doorman there is a former Russian noble named Boris Morosov (Louis Calhern), who is a friend of Ravic's and who, in the film, is given most of the weightier philosophical dialogue.

Joan begins to fall rather heavily for Ravic, but Ravic is aware that his status is precarious at best, and he doesn't want to be leading the obviously emotionally unbalanced woman along into a romance that is probably doomed from the outset. Ravic is also dealing with his own issues, unable to forget or forgive the monstrous behavior of Von Haake. Still, the two take halting steps toward each other, steps which are temporarily waylaid when Ravic's greatest fear – deportation - actually comes to pass. That sets the film out on its equally baroque second act, where Ravic returns after exile to find Joan living the high life as a kept woman and Von Haake still traipsing around those rainy Parisian streets.

There are a number of things ailing Arch of Triumph, the chief of which is an overstuffed length (the film clocks in at well over two hours, evidently cut down from a four hour rough cut). Remarque's novel was apparently a very dense affair with tons of characters (many of whom don't even make it to the film version), but in trying to capture as much of the flavor of the novel as possible, Milestone and his co-writer Harry Brown fail to adequately shape the morass that's left, offering a kind of sloppy, drawn out doomed romance playing out against the background of a burgeoning global conflict. The best thing about the film is its palpable sense of melancholy. Boyer and Bergman both create completely convincing portraits of wounded souls struggling to survive in a world that makes no sense and a place where neither of them belongs, but too much time is spent on the romantic angle to make what is arguably the film's real calling card - Ravic's quest for revenge against Von Haake - resonate as deeply as it might have otherwise.

It's no mere coincidence that what is arguably the film's strongest sequence in fact deals with that very quest for revenge. It's an incredibly brutal scene (and just as incredible, evidently what's in the film pales to what the censors took out), and it suddenly gives voice to all the tamped down melancholy that's gone before. It's okay to repeatedly see a misty eyed Ingrid Bergman, but unless Sam is there to sing As Time Goes By, it just doesn't have the same impact.

Though the rain is relentless in Arch of Triumph, unfortunately lightning doesn't strike twice, and this World War II refugee romance starring Ingrid Bergman can hardly be placed in the same category as the immortal Casablanca. If the seriously overstuffed second act had been aggressively trimmed, letting the film focus on the revenge angle earlier, Arch of Triumph would at least have been an agreeable enough effort. Still, fans of the stars may want to check this out, but they should be prepared for less than optimal video and (to a less extent) audio. [Kauffman’s rating: *** out of 5 stars]

Labels: drama, romance, tragedy, war

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