Writer-director Billy Wilder’s natural cynicism is nicely counterbalanced by a fetching love triangle and some on-point political satire in his 1948 dark romantic comedy A Foreign Affair.
The Production: 4/5
Writer-director Billy Wilder’s natural cynicism is nicely counterbalanced by a fetching love triangle and some on-point political satire in his 1948 dark romantic comedy A Foreign Affair. Career defining performances by Jean Arthur and Marlene Dietrich highlight this eye-opening look at post World War II Berlin awash with foreigners taking full advantage of a downtrodden and desperate population.
Spinsterish, inexperienced Iowa congresswoman Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur) touches down in postwar Berlin on a fact-finding mission about the state of morale among the occupying forces when her path crosses with legendary cabaret singer Erika von Schlütow (Marlene Dietrich), long rumored to be the former mistress of Hans Otto Birgel (Peter von Zerneck), a high-ranking Nazi leader now in hiding and now reportedly under the protection of an unidentified American military officer. Frost falls for her military escort Captain John Pringle (John Lund), unaware that the handsome American is the singer’s secret lover while he is determined to keep Miss Frost in the dark about his true romantic feelings.
The Oscar-nominated screenplay by Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, and Richard Breen doesn’t come up with anything unique in the romantic triangle department (dowdy Miss Frost – a rather obvious metaphoric name – pales in comparison to glamorous cabaret singer von Schlütow until, just like Cinderella, she transforms from plain Jane into glamour puss), but the film is nevertheless filled with examples of the desperate state of the city and the indifference of the stationed soldiers to the plight of the populace as long as they get what they want. Wilder even makes sure that Dietrich’s three cabaret numbers (all penned by her composer of choice Frederick Hollander who cameos in the movie as her accompanist) reflect the settings and situations he’s picturing: “Black Market,” “Illusions,” and “The Ruins of Berlin,” the latter especially poignant since we’re given bird’s eye views of the city’s rubble right after the movie’s opening credits, and it surrounds us every time we go outside, even in the Hollywood soundstage sets that were built to mirror the devastation of the city at that moment in time. Wilder does stage a very entertaining seduction sequence with filing cabinets as Captain Pringle pursues Congresswoman Frost, and you can’t help but admire the resilience of the Germans shown in the film as they endure the ignominy of bartering their few pitiful possessions for food and everyday items like soap and cigarettes.
After her glory years at Columbia, Jean Arthur left films for good apart from two brief but memorable returns: this film and five years later Shane. She’s to be commended for deglamorizing herself so completely for the film’s first half as the severe, no nonsense Miss Frost, but in the face of Marlene Dietrich’s incredible beauty and allure (that body poured into striking Edith Head creations, that smoky voice purring her songs so seductively), even her beautified modification doesn’t quite manage to win the crown from Miss Dietrich. For her part, Marlene embodies the surviving soul of the German people magnificently, willing to do whatever it takes to survive and able to think her way out of tight situations and switch allegiances at will in order to carry on. Hers is the performance of the movie. John Lund makes a perfectly acceptable if a trifle bland leading man, and Millard Mitchell is just fine as Colonel Rufus J. Plummer who’s pulling a good many of the strings offstage. Peter von Zerneck as the Nazi officer formerly the lover of singer Erika von Schlütow but now being hunted by the Americans only makes brief appearances until the film’s rather sobering climax, heady drama in a film that’s been much lighter and frothier in tone until its last quarter hour.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 is faithfully rendered in this 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. There are many more thin white scratches than one might have expected with the movie, and there is occasional dirt and debris, too. Otherwise, the greyscale is admirable with deep blacks and pure whites (making the film’s Oscar nomination for cinematography completely understandable). A nice layer of grain is also present to give the image a film-like quality. The movie has been divided into 8 chapters.
Universal has done an admirable job in cleaning up the film’s soundtrack presented here in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Dialogue and song lyrics are crisp and easy to discern, and mixed with Frederick Hollander’s music and the appropriate sound effects, the audio track is free from age-related problems with hiss, crackle, hum, and flutter.
Special Features: 2/5
Audio Commentary: film historian Joseph McBride spends much of the film’s running time discussing his intimate knowledge of Billy Wilder and Jean Arthur, both of whom he was acquainted with, in the latter case quite closely. There is some analysis of the film, too, though little is spoken of in terms of the history of the film’s supporting players.
Theatrical Trailer (1:01, SD)
Kino Trailers: Witness for the Prosecution, One, Two, Three, Irma La Douce, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Avanti, The Front Page.
A film that deserves to be much better known, Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair mixes fun and satire in a beguiling package with a couple of sparkling performances by two of the top actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Age: Jean Arthur and (supremely) Marlene Dietrich. Recommended!