Erich Maria Remarque wrote characters worldly enough to attract directors as sophisticated as G.W. Pabst, André De Toth, Douglas Sirk and James Whale to their stories. Here we are in the hands of Lewis Milestone, who earlier adapted Remarque's classic "All Quiet on the Western Front" into an Oscar-winning Hollywood triumph.
"Arch of Triumph" drops us into a refugee underworld in 1938 Paris. Europe is on the brink of another war, and people fleeing the fascists are evading deportation, internment, or worse. Charles Boyer plays a torture survivor, a German surgeon practicing medicine on the black market, an illegal alien one step away from being sent back to the Nazis who tortured his lover to death. His life is reduced to basic survival and an ambition for revenge upon the Gestapo officer (Charles Laughton) who prowls Paris looking for information on resistance networks.
Late one rainy night, Boyer's doctor performs a reluctant act of kindness, and rescues Ingrid Bergman from self-destruction. Beyond mere distress, she is a "damsel in disgrace," a kept woman cast suddenly adrift. Inevitably, Boyer's aloofness from humankind cannot withstand the fascination of a Bergman photographed in elegant chiaroscuro by Russell Metty. Given the complexity of the times, the very real impending danger and doom, and their own battered psyches, these lovers cannot be anything but star-crossed.
I was wholly and pleasurably immersed in this dark melodrama. I am a late-awakening fan of Boyer's grownup allure, and this may be the most imperfect character I've seen Bergman play. Picture the party girl at the beginning of "Notorious." Now imagine that true love does not turn her recklessness into strength and bravery. This demimondaine is weak, frightened and needy, and while it is completely understandable and beautifully played, she may be jarring to some classic movie fans and Bergman aficionados.
Fans of old Hollywood should keep an eye peeled for Mike Romanoff in a small role as a restaurateur (perfect!), and young William Conrad as a gimlet-eyed French detective. I can't imagine anybody refusing to enjoy Louis Calhern as a colonel exiled by the Russian revolution.