Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Foreign Affair (1948)

I think I'm in love with this movie. A Foreign Affair, director Billy Wilder's dark comedy about a romantic triangle between a US serviceman, an ex-Nazi, and a Republican congresswoman from Iowa, is a wonder of a film. Jean Arthur stars as Phoebe Frost, an uptight representative from the Hawkeye State, who travels with a congressional delegation to rubble strewn, post-war Berlin in order to investigate morale among the troops. She's offended by the physical and moral squalor that greets her until she meets a fellow Iowan, a captain named John Pringle (John Lund) whom she mistakes as a stalwart Midwesterner like herself. In truth, Pringle is a unscrupulous slickster who peddles merchandise on the black market and keeps the heat off of his German girlfriend, Erika Von Schluetow (Marlene Dietrich), the ex-lover of one of Hitler's top lieutenants. When Congresswoman Frost accidentally stumbles across Von Schluetow singing for American servicemen in an underground nightclub, she sets out to bring down the ex-Nazi with the help of...Captain Pringle. In order to shield his girlfriend, Pringle starts to romance the congresswoman. His plan works well enough--until the stuffy legislator blossoms into a lovesick girl intent on taking him back to Iowa.

The screenplay was chiefly the work of Wilder, Charles Brackett, and Richard Breen, and even by Wilder's usual standards it's a wickedly funny piece of work. Observing
Von Schluetow in a sexy dress, Congresswoman Frost asks Pringle, "I wonder what's holding up that dress?"

He replies, "Must be that German willpower."

When he asks her, "And how is good old Iowa?" she tells him, "Sixty-two percent Republican, thank you very much."

As with much of Wilder's work, however, there is more going on here than a steady stream of one-liners. Wilder was Hollywood's most pungent misanthrope, an artist committed to the discrediting of myths and exposing of hypocrisies. A Foreign Affair is hardly an anti-American film--one of its most likable characters is the gruff Army colonel played with crusty charm by veteran character actor Millard Mitchell--but it is not the kind of self-congratulatory fluff that one might expect from a Hollywood film of the time. It paints a picture of people surviving and adapting to their surroundings--no matter if those people are American, German, or Russian.

Wilder always sees people's faults, but he also keeps a close eye on their humanity as well. This helps explain why the film is so much more than a dark comedy about the moral fluidity that exists among the ruins of a defeated country. For one thing, it is a genuinely touching romance. This owes a lot to the three performers at the center of the film.

John Lund was never a big star, and he failed to ever find a suitable screen persona (he's noticeably stiff in something like John Farrow's Night Has a Thousand Eyes), yet here he's terrific. He's at ease with the snappy one-liners, and he creates a believable rapport with both of his leading ladies, not a easy feat given the vast differences in their style and energy.

But what style and energy they had! The one-two punch of Dietrich and Arthur might seem an odd pairing at first glance: one was the personification of European sexual sophistication, while the other seemed like the kind of girl who probably knew a good apple pie recipe.

Neither of these impressions was strictly true about the real woman, of course. Dietrich had a strong nurturing side--Wilder said she was always looking for a sick crew member for whom she could make chicken soup--and Arthur was one of the most headstrong, eccentric actresses in Hollywood. Each, however, possessed a distinct movie star aura.

They were also two of the best actors of their time, and in this film each gave one of her best performances. Dietrich has the flashier role in some ways--and since she's by far the bigger icon, her face looms largest on the posters and DVD cases. She's pitch-perfect as the morally ambiguous Erika
Von Schluetow. Who else could get away with answering the question, "Hey, how big a Nazi were you, anyway?" with "Oh, what does it matter about a woman's politics?" More than any other actress, Dietrich was able to look a man (or woman) in the eye and tell the unvarnished truth about human nature. Von Schluetow is a survivor who survives by sex and wit. She's too smart not to know that Pringle is half in love with her, half repelled by her--and their scenes together have a fascinating undertone of violence. But as Von Schluetow might say, a girl has got to eat. Her last scene here--in which she assesses her dire situation and immediately seizes on the best way to make the most of it--owes a lot to Dietrich's onscreen ethos. When it came to the subject of sex, Dietrich was the most self-actualized actress in the history of cinema.

If Dietrich held out the promise of carnal pleasure without pesky emotional entanglements, then Jean Arthur was like the prettiest tomboy in the neighborhood. She'd become a star as the street smart girl in Frank Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but she hated acting. Suffering from a crippling stage fright, she lived in terror of the camera and became, over the years, increasing difficult to work with (even nice guys like Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra tended to be circumspect in their descriptions of her work habits, though not her talent). In fact, although she was a huge star, she'd given up acting when A Foreign Affair was made. She had to be dragged out of retirement to do the film, but the instincts of Wilder and his producers proved correct. As Phoebe Frost, Arthur gives one of her funniest, and most endearing, performances. With her squeaky voice and lopsided grin (whenever she gets determined she talks out of one side of her mouth), she's comic from the outset. The more prim and proper she gets, the funnier she gets. But when she falls in love, Arthur creates the emotional center of the movie. Watch the scene where Lund puts the moves on her in a darkened file room--"Don't tell me it's subversive to kiss a Republican," he coos--and you can almost watch her heart race. After he kisses her, she grabs his hair and yanks his head back, her mouth open in sudden sexual hunger, and then pulls him back for more. That's the point at which, without knowing it, Captain Pringle is in over his head. A later scene of a drunken Ms. Frost, in a beautiful blackmarket night gown, jumping to the front of a Berlin nightclub to strike up a singalong version of "The Iowa Corn Song" is one of the most effervescent moments I've ever seen in a movie.

The genius of this movie is that even though everyone in it is flawed--they're either a cynic, an ex-Nazi, or a Republican--you love them all. It's a juggling act that Wilder, his co-writers, his crew, and his remarkable cast pull off with grace and style.


For more on Arthur read here. And here. And here's a brief bio. And watch her singing the Iowa Corn Song here.

Dietrich has one of the best websites of any classic star,

Finally, here's an overview of Wilder's career.

1 comment:

Patrick Murtha said...

Great post on a great movie. I'm linking to it in my culture blog, Patrick Murtha's Diary.