Friday, 5 April 2013

A Foreign Affair (1948)

In post-war Berlin, an US captain (John Lund) is having an affair with a German singer with a nebulous past (Marlene Dietrich). All is going well until the arrival of a delegation of Congressmen and particularly one Congresswoman (Jean Arthur), who thinks her main task is rid the US army of any improper behaviour.

Wilder's film, is often uneven, dragging a bit in the middle, despite a typical sharp Wilderean start (sharp dialogue, misbehaving characters, etc.) and some very good scenes towards the end. It is mostly a Old World vs New World motif, with neither coming out brilliantly, nor entirely tarnished. Representing both sides are the two women, the prudish US Congresswoman Phoebe Frost (the pun with the name is a bit too obvious for my liking) and resourceful, survivor, (ex-?) Nazi Erika von Schlülow. The prize is, on the surface, a man, only it's not really. It is more of a clash of cultures of identities, and the winner will be the dominant culture: the film mirroring the US taking over Europe as the leading world reference. As an Jewish emigré, Wilder was certainly very aware of this. Besides, as the end shows (and minor spoiler here), Dietrich's character is less concerned about him than she is about her future.

Wilder co-wrote the script with Charles Brackett (as usual, until after "Sunset Blvd."), with Richard L. Breen also credited. Annoyingly there is one major fault with it. Arthur's character is drawn or played too broadly for gags as a prudish and self-rightous nuisance in the beginning and later, as she's intended to become more sympathetic the film suffers from it. Jean Arthur's character grows as she leaves her bubble and sees the world, but I really never cared for her. It is also possible that she had already lost interest in acting (or that her wrinkles were too visible). This was her first film in four years, and she would only return once more five years later for "Shane". Dietrich's character on the other hand is much better written. Yes, she was (is?) a Nazi, but she has also experienced the war at its fulllest and become adept at survival. There are some very dark hints at what happened when the Soviet army arrived in Berlin. There is some ambiguity at how much she loves John Lund's character or if he's just a convinient person to know. I am inclined to say it's both. Dietrich is both wonderful and miscast, as she's perhaps a tad too glamorous for a 1948 Berlin underground bar. On the other hand, that helps explain a lot. But also by 1948 Dietrich was a myth not an actress - even if Wilder got much better out of her in "Witness for the Prosecution".

There are also a few wonderful one liners (the general wondering if investing in ping-pong tables had not been a waste of money, Dietrich saying her flat is a few ruins away, and her comment about losing her country, possessions and beliefs) and a few very good scenes (the mirroring filibuster scenes), my favourite being the confrontation scene between the two actresses at the flat, where everything is spot on: acting, dialogue, lighting, camera - truly Wilder's style at his best. And Wilder would return once more to post-war Berlin with "One, Two, Three".

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