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Billy Wilder A Foreign Affair Review

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Wilder Concocts an Affair to Remember in Underrated A Foreign Affair (1948) | Blu-ray Review

Wilder Concocts an Affair to Remember in Underrated A Foreign Affair (1948) | Blu-ray Review

One of a handful of Billy Wilder’s underrated films is the dark romantic comedy A Foreign Affair (1948), which was filmed in the bombed-out hull of Berlin during the earlier days of the city’s reconstruction following the end of WWII. A German émigré himself of Jewish heritage, both Wilder and his star Marlene Dietrich were aggressively and quite vocally anti-Fascist, with the latter famously crusading on the front-lines entertaining US troops throughout the war—which makes this film even more of a surprise to see Dietrich deigning to play a chanteuse struggling to survive amongst the wreckage whilst eluding her Nazi past.

Like several of Wilder’s comedies (famously he’d return to Berlin in 1961 with One, Two, Three (review), released after the Berlin wall was erected and also hampered by sinister sociopolitical underpinnings which sank its box office potential) there’s an unmistakable marriage to an inescapable reality (take either of Shirley MacLaine’s turns in his Irma la Douce or The Apartment, for instance), and as such, the terror of Nazi Germany infects all the proceedings of this formidable time capsule. Dietrich faces off with Jean Arthur for the love of John Lund in a compelling inverse of the usual comical love triangle, and this was Arthur’s second-to-last theatrical appearance (followed by 1953’s Shane). Fans of Dietrich can drink her up (even as she was on the eve of becoming a grandmother here) as a two-faced monster doing whatever she can to survive, whilst Arthur gets the fuzzy end of the stick as an uptight Plain Jane Republican congresswoman from Iowa sent on a detail to heighten the morale of the American troops placed to keep the peace. It’s a tall order for a romantic comedy, and yet, Wilder instills an effortless tone which makes even its morbidity escapable, at times.

Arthur is Phoebe Frost, a no-nonsense congresswoman sent as a convoy to investigate troubling reports on low morale of American troops in Berlin. She’s been given a chocolate cake to deliver to fellow Iowan Captain John Pringle (John Lund), which she believes to be from his sweetheart. The cake, however, is contraband, and Pringle uses it to purchase a mattress for his German lover, nightclub singer Erika (Dietrich), who uses her relationship with the high-ranking officer to elude hard labor for her role in the Nazi party as she was once the girlfriend of an official who now hides out in the Russian sector of the divided city. Frost quickly learns of many a nefarious dealing between the troops and black-market shenanigans, making her way one night to the Lorelei nightclub, where Erika performs. Whispers of the singer’s Nazi past put Frost on high alert, and the reappearance of the cake forces Lund to engage with the congresswoman as a distraction. As Frost digs deeper for information on Erika, Pringle engages in a romantic courtship which quickly becomes sincere for both of them…but Erika’s Nazi lover has plans to reclaim her, while Pringle’s chain of command is intent on using him as the unwitting pawn he has so foolishly let himself become.

Dietrich is ravishing in a role which jumpstarted the second major period of her on-screen career. A decade after parting ways with Von Sternberg, Dietrich appeared in a number of forgettable Hollywood romantic comedies and stiff melodramas. She’d return to work with Wilder in 1957, once more a survivor of war-torn Berlin, for one of the most memorable roles of her career in Witness to the Prosecution (review), but her role in A Foreign Affair predated collaborations with Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles and Stanley Kramer. She’s introduced quite memorably, brushing her teeth before spitting in the face of her lover, who then manhandles her, threatens strangulation and deems her a ‘blonde witch.’ Theirs is a relationship of sexual exchange, and Wilder’s script with Charlie Brackett has to eschew seditiousness by forcing an attraction to Arthur’s Phoebe, a plain but imperious woman Erika derides as a ‘face scrubbed like a kitchen floor’ (rumor has it Arthur resented Wilder’s favoritism towards both Dietrich and her character, while Wilder famously said of the production, “I have one dame who’s afraid to look at herself in the mirror and another who won’t stop looking.)” Wilder also had misgivings about John Lund, who he alluded to as a poor man’s Cary Grant (whom the role was supposedly written for and who had also starred in previous films with both women, Blonde Venus and Only Angels Have Wings, respectively).

Arthur, who was such a strong presence in the 1930s thanks to her appearances in several of Frank Capra’s most celebrated films, is reduced to somewhat of a bore here, and it’s difficult to watch her effervescence straightjacketed into such conservative rigidity (which eventually makes her character a hypocrite, and is one of the more subtle subversive elements of the film, the more glaring strangeness being how easy it was to turn a blind eye towards Nazi war criminals, especially if they were beautiful women—which, if anything, is one more exemplification of the banality of evil).

Disc Review:

Kino Lorber releases A Foreign Affair for the first time on disc in the US (previously only R2 options were available). Presented in 1.37:1, picture and sound quality are impressive (the aerial footage of bombed out Berlin is quite arresting), which was shot by Charles Lang (who was also responsible for Wilder’s Sabrina and Some Like It Hot). An audio commentary track is available courtesy of film historian Joseph McBride.

Film Rating: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Rating: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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