Sunday, February 01, 2009

Tonight's Movie: A Foreign Affair (1948)

Over a dozen years before filming ONE, TWO, THREE (1961) in Berlin, director Billy Wilder filmed quite a different movie in the same city: A FOREIGN AFFAIR, which takes place amidst the bombed-out rubble of postwar Berlin. Both films tackle serious topics -- Communism on the one hand, fascism and post-war chaos on the other -- but A FOREIGN AFFAIR is as somber as ONE, TWO, THREE is funny.

A FOREIGN AFFAIR stars Jean Arthur, John Lund, and Marlene Dietrich. I watched the movie because I love Arthur and I also enjoy Lund, and despite the fact Dietrich is in the film. I've always had a strong aversion to Dietrich, and this film didn't win me over. I've simply never understood her appeal, and her monotone "singing" eventually caused me to hit the fast-forward button. When Dietrich is off the screen, it's a somewhat interesting film, but whenever she's on the screen I honestly found it very dull. (My apologies to Dietrich fans...)

Arthur plays Iowa Congresswoman Phoebe Frost, who is part of a Congressional delegation researching the morale of American soldiers occupying Berlin. Lund plays a captain who's been dallying in his off hours with Dietrich, a singer who is a former Nazi sympathizer; he initially spends time with the Congresswoman in order to distract her from investigating Dietrich, but then he finds himself falling for Phoebe for real. This becomes a problem when the captain is ordered to keep seeing Dietrich as part of a plot to snare a top Nazi official.

Arthur is charming, as always, and particularly fun when she launches into a spirited rendition of the Iowa state song. Her reaction to finding love unexpectedly is touching. Lund is convincing as someone who's half heel, half romantic leading man. Millard Mitchell is excellent as Lund's commanding officer.

I'm glad I saw the film, but don't know that I'd want to watch it again. There's some great -- if bleak -- atmosphere, some sharp lines, and some nice bits of business in the relationship between the captain and the Congresswoman. However, the movie's attitude is extremely dark, portraying the American occupation of Germany in an almost wholly negative light; while the general (Mitchell) explains to the Congressional representatives the enormity of the military's task of reconstructing Berlin, little if anything positive is actually shown of the American military, who are portrayed as a bunch of profiteering, leering louts. When you add to that the sad environment, the complications that develop in Arthur and Lund's romance, and Dietrich's extensive screen time, well, it's just not a very cheerful movie.

The opening credits note that a large part of the movie was filmed in Berlin. The location filming apparently consisted of footage which is used in establishing and process shots, including a Congressional tour of the city.

A FOREIGN AFFAIR has been released on VHS. It does not appear to have had a U.S. DVD release.

The movie can also be seen on Turner Classic Movies. The trailer can be seen here.

Fall 2012 Update: This film is now available on DVD in the Directed by Billy Wilder set from the TCM Vault Collection.

August 2019 Update: This movie is now available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber, including a commentary track by historian Joseph McBride.

September 2019 Update: My review of the Kino Lorber Blu-ray may be found here. I felt quite differently about the movie this time around.


Blogger Raquel Stecher said...

You are not alone. I don't get Dietrich either.

6:25 AM  
Blogger Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

I probably enjoyed A Foreign Affair more than you did for several reasons: I’m never adverse to heavy doses of cynicism in films, and Billy Wilder is one of my favorite writer-directors, hands down. But I’ve never subscribed to the Dietrich cult either; I like a few of Marlene’s early vehicles, like Shanghai Express and The Scarlet Empress, but for the most part I think her reputation is inflated.

No, the main draw in Affair is Jean Arthur, one of my absolute favorite movie actresses—and the Iowa Fight Song sequence is one of most charming “musical” interludes ever in the movies. (Arthur’s “chirpy” tones send shivers up my spine every time, and if I miss taping The Whole Town’s Talking when it comes around on TCM again there will be heck to pay.) I’ve never cared much for John Lund (well, he’s passable in The Mating Season); I’ve always lamented that Wilder didn’t hook up with William Holden earlier in his career because if Holden had Lund’s role Affair would be a much better-known picture.

Affair is available in a nice Region 2 set along with Destry Rides Again (another film Dietrich shines in, though it’s more a vehicle for Jimmy Stewart and the supporting cast) and the fact that it hasn’t been released in Region 1 is a crying shame.

10:20 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Raquelle and Ivan, glad to know I'm not alone in being baffled by Dietrich. :)

Ivan, I enjoyed your thoughts very much. Although I enjoy Lund, I agree I can easily see William Holden cast in this role...although I think he might have been a tiny bit too young for Arthur at the time the movie was made -- Holden was seven years younger than Lund, who was over a decade younger than Arthur, though they sure didn't look that disparate in ages on screen!

Best wishes,

10:45 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

For the record, despite his story telling ability, I despise Billy Wilder's take on humanity; like a bright and spoiled child showing off. As for Marlene Dietrich, take another look. Her decades long a nd world wide success in various theatrical avenues is no accident.

9:47 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Barrylane!

Wilder is hit or miss for me. I especially like his earlier stuff (including writing), along with the occasional later title like ONE, TWO, THREE. Strongly dislike THE APARTMENT which many people love.

Please check out my new review of A FOREIGN AFFAIR and you'll see that over the years I have, indeed, given Marlene another look. :)

Best wishes,

10:06 AM  

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