Saturday, 24 September 2016
Movie Review: A Foreign Affair (1948)
A bombed-out Berlin, just after the end of World War Two. A US congressional committee led by prim and proper Iowa congresswoman Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur) arrives to investigate troop morale. She is soon exposed to soldiers fraternizing with local woman, and in particular gravitating to a popular cabaret where sultry singer Erika von Schlütow (Marlene Dietrich) performs. Erika has a dark past with strong connections to the highest echelons of the Nazi party, but is currently surviving by carrying on a secret affair with Captain John Pringle (John Lund), who is also from Iowa.
Phoebe insists on investigating Erika, not knowing that Pringle's commander, Colonel Plummer (Millard Mitchell), already has the singer under observation in the hopes of smoking out a high ranking Nazi still in hiding. Pringle worries that Phoebe's meddling will expose his affair, so he feigns a romantic interest in the congresswoman, melting her heart and creating a complex love triangle in the destroyed city.
Directed and co-written by Billy Wilder, A Foreign Affair is visually attractive, but otherwise more curious than successful. The grim setting of a Berlin in ruins hosting emotionally shattered locals and a bored occupying army creates fundamentals for a hefty drama. Instead Wilder half-heartedly steers towards comedy, and the playful elements are never at ease within the dour context.
John Lund in the role of Captain John Pringle does not help matters as all. Singularly lacking in charisma, it is difficult to imagine one woman even pretending to be attracted to him, let alone two at the same time. Buffoonish congressmen and the barely sketched side story of a Nazi coming out of hiding further erode enjoyment.
It is left to the prevailing mood and on-location cinematography to rescue the pleasures of the film, and Wilder and cinematographer Charles Lang do not disappoint. The mountains of debris on every street corner and the bombed-out buildings still serving as housing for shell-shocked Germans are captured in their destructive majesty, with plenty of crisp nighttime scenes making the most of the black, white and grey austerity.
A Foreign Affair is an uneven effort, a laughing-in-the-graveyard exercise where the fun falls flat but the prevailing aesthetics impress nonetheless.
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