Recently here at Cinema Styles Billy Wilder's A Foreign Affair came up in the comment section and having never seen it was excited to find out it was playing at the A.F.I. Silver as a part of the Jean Arthur Retrospective that wraps up this week. My wife and I took advantage the opportunity to see this lesser known Wilder and were more than pleased with the result.
The story takes place in post-war Berlin as a group of United States Senators and Representatives visit the bombed out city to assess the morale of the occupation troops. One of those representatives is Phoebe Frost, played by Jean Arthur, a stalwart Republican from Iowa, clean, prudish and repressed. Obviously, just her read her name again. Upon arriving Frost meets Captain John Pringle, played by John Lund, and quickly makes him her liaison to the seamy side of Berlin so she can blow the roof off of the whole occupation, one she views as being knee deep in black markets and fraternization with ex-Nazi women. And, she's right. Problem is, Captain Pringle is the biggest black market wheeler and dealer out there and happens to be having an affair with a former Nazi seductress, Erika Von Schluetow, played by the magnificent Marlene Dietrich. Trying to keep his illegal activities a secret from Frost while keeping Von Schluetow out of the labor camps becomes the new 24 hour job of Pringle. It's a job made more complicated by his growing feelings for Frost, feelings easier to succumb to when further information is uncovered that Von Schluetow may have fraternized all the way up to Hitler.
Coming into theaters in 1948 this is delicate material to say the least and it's probably true that the only way one could have presented post-war Berlin (much of the movie was actually shot there) so soon after the war was in a romantic comedy so as not to recall too many painful memories for the audiences. It's a tightrope walk at which Wilder succeeds, lightening the mood just when talk of Nazis and Hitler and concentration camps is getting a little too heavy. And what must it have been like for Dietrich doing a scene with actors made up to look like Goebbels and Hitler? Whatever the feelings were during the production, the three leads produce excellent work throughout. Jean Arthur is probably the least of the three only because her character is giving to broader, much broader, strokes while the other two characters are far more grounded in reality. Still, she makes her character strong and sympathetic, not an easy job considering how close to caricature Wilder makes the character. Fortunately, Arthur has the talent to pull it off. Nevertheless, had Wilder made her a little less prudish, and a lot less easily bowled over by romance, both the character and the movie would have been much stronger.
John Lund on the other hand is perfectly cast. There was some discussion in the comments here as to whether his casting was a mistake or not and I have to say it was dead-on accurate. Captain John Pringle isn't Clark Gable, Captain John Pringle is an American soldier working the black market and bedding ex-Nazis who likes to think he's Clark Gable. His Gable moustache combined with his average-to-good looks work perfectly in a kind of "big fish in a small pond" way. As far as the bombed out refugees are concerned, especially ex-Nazis like Von Schluetow who needs someone she can use to keep her out of the labor camps, this guy is the best thing going. Back home he'd be just another poser, but here he's a hot property. A Bulova in a display full of Cartier's may not look too impressive but on the counter at the local convenience store next to a row of Timexes, it looks a lot better.
But no matter how good Arthur and Lund are it is Marlene that steals every scene, every frame, hell, the whole movie. Marlene Dietrich is a personal favorite and this movie does nothing to change that. There is an intelligence behind the way Dietrich speaks her lines that always makes me feel like she's the smartest person on the set, even when Orson Welles is hanging around. I'm not saying I think Lund and Arthur were unintelligent people, or anyone else Dietrich worked with, just that Dietrich had something, a knowingness that she couldn't hide. It's on display here in all it's glory and if Billy Wilder ever achieved a moment of perfection in casting, it's here. Von Schluetow needs a mixture of intellect and sexual energy to keep herself out of prison and Dietrich makes you believe that this ex-Nazi could successfully convince an officer in the United States Army to manipulate her files and cover up the truth.
A Foreign Affair is not a well known Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett collaboration and is not available on DVD but it should be better known than it is. It portrays a post-war occupation army in Berlin probably much closer to reality than any serious drama of the time would have done. Showing soldiers taking advantage of desperate locals on the black market, consorting with ex-Nazis and breaking curfew to engage in illicit activities around the clock would most likely have caused an outrage had it been presented in a dramatic, expose kind of a way. But as a comedy, it seems acceptable. And quite enjoyable.