A Litmus Tests for Fans of 1940s Romanticism

CAUTION: CONTAINS “SPOILERS”

So you say you’re a fan of 1940s movie romanticism because “Casablanca” makes you go all weak in the knees? Bah! Lewis Milestone’s “Arch of Triumph” is the real test of your fan proclivities. From the opening meeting on a bridge overlooking the Seine on a cold and rainy evening between singer Joan Madou and a refugee doctor who answers only to “Ravek,” to the downbeat finale in a Paris hospital, Milestone sets you up for the biggest doomed-love-affair movie that you’ve ever seen. Yes there is what passes for an upbeat finale when Ravek finally decides to stop dodging the police, but really, the film ends with Joan’s foolish and accidental death at the hands of her latest besotted beau. Oddly enough the ending is foreshadowed in the the films opening when Madou, eulogizing a dead lover states he always threatened to kill her, but that men who say that never do.

If Joan Madou’s problem is too many men, Ravek’s problem is one woman–the one he saw tortured to death in Germany by an S.S. interrogator. Charles Laughton’s Haake is an interesting villain. He’s monstrous in Germany in his full S.S. regalia–in Paris snooping for information on the refugee community he looks like a prosperous businessman visiting from the countryside. (Although there is that monocle he likes to sport.) Haake is alternately silly, lecherous and sly. He doesn’t even recognize Ravek as the man he slashed across the face with his riding whip. He thinks the scar is from a student duelling society and that Ravek’s a “good German,” more than anxious to help an agent of the Reich root out traitors. Of course Ravek’s real intention is to murder the man whose snarling face has haunted his dreams. At one point, when Haake thinks Ravek is going off without him, he bleats out “Don’t leave me” like a little boy, but when he begins to suspect that Ravek’s car ride to a first-class brothel is taking a bit too long, we see the wheels turning in his head as he begins to draw the pistol from his coat pocket. Unfortunately for him, Ravek sees it too, although the subsequent murder is a quick, messy affair, not at all the act of triumph Ravek may have hoped for.

Ravek’s one friend in Paris is a former Lieutenant-Colonel in the Tsar’s bodyguard now reduced to being a uniformed doorman at a nightclub, played by a bearded Louis Calhern. Calhern chews the scenery enjoyably. His work isn’t quite as multi-faceted as Laughton’s but he works well with Charles Boyer’s Ravek, and you can actually believe that the two men really care about each other. But of course the film’s main attractions are Boyer as the world-weary Ravek and Ingrid Bergman as a sad-eyed Joan Madou. The film has been knocked for being slow-moving–the version I saw clocked in at 132 minutes, and it’s apparently edited down from a even longer first cut. But the film doesn’t have to move like greased lightning. It is a drama, not an action film–and as a drama it’s a sad, rain-streaked romantic one. There’s no plane to Lisbon for Joan, and no Free French Garrison at Brazaville for Ravek.

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