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Marlene Dietrich stars in A Foreign Affair


A Foreign Affair
cast: Marlene Dietrich, Jean Arthur, John Lund, Millard Mitchell, and Peter von Zerneck

director: Billy Wilder

116 minutes (PG) 1948
Universal Pictures DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Gary McMahon
Like most people, I most identify Billy Wilder with modern, quirky and snappy romantic comedies like Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, The Seven-Year Itch, or the classic film noir Double Indemnity. I wasn't aware that he'd worked with Marlene Dietrich, but am glad that I discovered this film.

The aptly named congresswoman Frost (Jean Arthur) is a methodical, no-nonsense woman, a stickler for detail, who is part of a U.S. committee sent to post-WWII Berlin to investigate "the morale of American occupation troops." When Miss Frost meets the womanising Captain Pringle, she is initially fooled by his charm into thinking that he is a model soldier. But the birthday cake hand-delivers from a girlfriend back home in Iowa is soon traded on the black market for a mattress bound for Pringle's German lover, Erika von Schluetow (Marlene Deitrich), who lives in a crumbling Berlin tenement and performs in a seedy nightclub.

Amid the typically sharp Wilder dialogue (although the screenplay was written by Charles Brackett and Richard L. Breen), there are some clever points made about postwar opportunism, crooked army staff and local law enforcement, sex-for-favours, and the out-of-control black market economy.

When the single-minded Miss Frost pretends to be a German frauline, she allows a couple of army privates to escort her around the underbelly of the city, where she sees the sultry Erika singing in an illegal club. There, Frost learns that someone is pulling strings to keep ex-Nazi Erika out of trouble and on the 'white list'; when she sees Pringle's birthday cake he is forced to step in to disassociate himself from the racketeers and continue his 'good soldier' act, convincing Frost that he will furnish her with information regarding illicit activities.

When Miss Frost discovers evidence that Erika once fraternised with Hitler himself, she recruits Pringle to aid her in her crusade to bring whoever is helping Erika to justice - in effect, charging him with the task of uncovering himself as a subversive. What follows is a near-farcical scenario, with Pringle trying desperately to cover his tracks, even to the extent of pretending to fall in love with Miss Frost. Matters are further complicated when we learn that the military are using Erika to lure a high-ranking Nazi into the open.

All the leads are solid in their roles - with Dietrich being the standout mainly due to her immense screen presence; although Jean Arthur takes the acting plaudits with a spirited turn as the uptight, seemingly cuckolded congresswoman (her delivery when she reveals the heartbreak of a past affair is wonderful, providing some much-needed warmth for the character). As usual with Wilder, the light comedy belies rather more serious themes, and this all adds up to a superbly entertaining film. There are a couple of quintessential Wilderesque moments (a scene in a filing room where cabinet drawers are used as a shield from seduction and Miss Frost's comically stirring rendition of Iowa's state anthem in the black market nightclub) that are worth their weight in gold.

The script sparkles; exterior locations of a bombed and ravaged Berlin are amazing to behold; Dietrich's slightly unwholesome Teutonic allure occasionally takes the piece into darker territory. A Foreign Affair may be a lesser-known title than some in Billy Wilder's body of work, but it's certainly a major achievement.

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