I want to blog in unusual fashion with this post. This is a movie review – but more than that. It is a review of Arch Of Triumph, a movie directed by Oscar-winner Lewis Milestone and starred Oscar-winners Ingrid Bergman, Charles Laughton along with Charles Boyer and Louis Calhern. This is a 1948 film dealing with Paris just before WWII that touches on topics very unusual and I hope some of my French readers will e-mail me or weigh-in on this after reading the post.
This movie is one of those movies that is both good and bad. The acting is really good. Charles Laughton in a supporting role plays a Nazi and Louis Calhern, another supporting actor probably best known as the crooked lawyer in Asphalt Jungle, almost steals the movie. By the time he gets done you may wish the movie had been all about him but more on that in a moment.
What really makes this movie unusual are the topics. Charles Boyer plays a doctor, a German refuge who escapes to Paris after being tortured by the Gestapo. Louis Calhern is a Colonel, from elsewhere, who is also a refugee. Ingrid Bergman is, what we would call now, a gold-digger who is an aspiring singer with a habit of latching on to the first guy who can make sure she keeps a roof over her head. This may seem coldly calculated in today’s world but in the depression-era 1930’s, it was a common concern and the movie handles it with a realistic ‘matter of fact’ attitude that is refreshing.
The viewers are exposed to something that rarely is brought up in movies and that is pre-war France. A whole network and underground world for refugees is exposed in this movie. The Charles Boyer character performs unlawful abortions (another unusual subject for this era) to earn a living. Not only that, but the movie shows – in a pretty realistic way suggesting someone may have had a bit of experience with this subject matter – how the doctors, hospitals etc. collaborated, turned a blind eye, in helping the refugees, doing the abortions etc.
The refugees, illegal and always under threat of arrest (a topic relevant for today), used an alias, worked illegally in clubs that turned the other way, and lived in rundown hotels that charged by the day. They discussed what to do if arrested etc. I found this angle to the story the most compelling part of the movie and it made me wonder how accurately it portrayed pre-war France. It was pretty detailed and since most of the cast and director would’ve known pre-war France, I tend to think there is a lot of truth in this premise.
Where the movie fails is something all writers should take note of because this script is a prime example of what happens when a writer doesn’t make decisions. The script can’t decide if it wants to be about refugees where the Lewis Calhern character probably should’ve been the focus, a love story between Boyer and Bergman (I suspect the studio bosses were pushing for that angle) or revenge against the Nazi Laughton character. I can’t recall seeing Laughton play villian and victim in the same movie before. Consequently, the script doesn’t deliver accurately on any of these because it constantly swerves between these three plot lines.
Truth is, while the acting is good, the premise unusual and highly interesting, the script falls short in bringing the story home. Really, the fault on this movie comes down to the writers and director (who should’ve known better).
This movie can be streamed on Netflix. I will recommend it but not highly. Like I’ve said, it is the subject matter that caught my attention because it opened my eyes to a whole new pre-war France that I don’t think I ever thought about before I watched this movie. In that regard, the movie succeeded in a big way.