Friday, April 26, 2013

Love Among the Ruins

Like all movie fans, I have holes in my knowledge. There are plenty of classic or critically acclaimed films that for one reason or another, I've just never seen. As an example: I don't think I've ever seen all of Ben Hur or Gone With the Wind in a single sitting. I'm pretty sure that I've seen all of both of those movies, but I've seen them in fragments, so my experience of them is more as mosaics than as linear narratives. One of these days, I should rectify this. One hole in my film-going education is Billy Wilder's romantic comedy, A Foreign Affair (1948). A friend of mine gave me a copy of the film on VHS recently (it's scarce on DVD, apparently), and my partner and I sat down to watch it this week. It turns out to be a film that argues forcefully for Wilder as an auteur in the classical sense of the word. It's a film that echoes throughout Wilder's career, both before and after A Foreign Affair was made. It's everything you expect from Wilder: witty, cynical, political, subversive, emotionally brittle. More than that, though, I think it shows the director growing into the mature style that would carry him through the 1950s. It's surprisingly heartfelt, too, given that Wilder was memorably described as having a mind full of razor blades.

The story here finds uptight congresswoman Phoebe Frost of Iowa traveling to the ruins of Berlin on a fact finding mission. Her committee is tasked with assessing the morale and morality of the occupying Americans on the behalf of the women of the USA. Her guide through this is one Captain John Pringle, who unbeknownst to Frost is a blackmarketeer who is canoodling with a German woman who sings in an illegal underground nightclub. This is Erika Von Schluetow, formerly associated with several high-ranking Nazi party members. Is she a Nazi herself? That's an open question throughout the film. In any event, Pringle's relationship with her would be ruinous to him should the congresswoman discover it, so he embarks to seduce Miss Frost as a way of covering his tracks. This works a bit too well, as the hunt for Erika's American paramour becomes hopelessly entwined with their (genuine) love affair. There's a double game at work here, though, because unbeknownst to either Miss Frost or Miss Von Schluetow, Lund is after bigger fish. At the command of his colonel, he's trying to flush a high-ranking Nazi fugitive into the open, and he's using both women as part of his endgame...

A Foreign Affair is basically a reworking of Ninotchka (which Wilder wrote for Ernst Lubitsch), with Jean Arthur's Congresswoman substituting for Greta Garbo's Communist Party functionary. Considering when it was made--1948 was when the House Un-American Activities Committee began to gather steam--this reversal of ideologies is downright subversive. I wonder, too, if Wilder isn't having a gentle lark at HUAC's expense in his depiction of the members of Miss Frost's fellow committee members, who also remind me a little of an updated version of the seven dwarfs in Ball of Fire. Phoebe Frost is defined so precisely in the opening sequence of the film that it really deserves close study: when she's told by her colleagues that she's missing a spectacular view of Berlin as their plane makes its descent, Frost meticulously finishes what she's doing and then puts everything away before indulging in sight seeing. The shot of Jean Arthur going through each and every action is held so long and each action is so precise that it delineates Frost as a classic type-A personality (my partner, who is by no means as analytical about film as I am even commented on it as we were watching it). This scene is kind of brilliant, and it draws Phoebe Frost indelibly in the mind's eye. For my part, I like her more than I like Ninotchka, in part because I think Jean Arthur is a more approachable screen presence, but also because the way she's wound is more convincing to me, particularly when she comes un-wound later in the movie. I never believed that Ninotchka would fall for Melvyn Douglas's snake oil, because she's hardly depicted as having human emotions at all (when "Garbo Laughs", the fact that it's a harsh, mechanical bark is one of the film's best jokes, but I digress). Frost, though? Yeah. I believe it even if if John Lund's Pringle is less than an ideal leading man. It's fun watching her thaw, and it's fun watching her as an instrument for the film to lampoon American prudery. The drive through the city where Miss Frost documents the various moral failings of American G.I.s is a tour de force in silent acting. Arthur only really stumbles when she's trying to impersonate a German woman as a means of getting close to a couple of would-be American lotharios.

Marlene Dietrich famously declined to play Nazis throughout her career. She hated the Nazis and worked tirelessly to support the war effort against them. Wilder spent a great deal of time in the aftermath of the war touring death camps looking for his family while documenting what he found. His mother and grandmother were killed in concentration camps, so if anyone in Hollywood hated the Nazis more than Dietrich, maybe it was him. Maybe that's why she took the role of Erika Von Schluetow. It's known that she told the director: "For you, and ONLY for you." In return, Wilder has some fun puncturing Dietrich's mystique. The first time we see her, she's brushing her teeth. Hardly glamourous. Later in the film, when she's maneuvering Frost into a compromised position to protect her own skin, Dietrich becomes positively reptilian. It's a more nuanced performance than I usually expect from her, but Dietrich was always a master of whatever screen on which she appeared. Wilder doesn't shy away from the kind of cinematic adoration Dietrich received from Von Sternberg, but he adds some indefinable something to it to make it vaguely off-putting.

The men in the film come off less well. John Lund, whose career mostly consisted of B-westerns and other low-rent programmers, is okay. He seems lacking a bit on charm, but he's not bad in the role. He does manage a bit of menace in the scene late in the film when he's actively seducing Miss Frost as a means of preventing her from finding an incriminating file, but he's outshone by his co-star, into whose mouth Wilder has put a "filibuster" consisting of "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" and the Declaration of Independence. This is the difference between movie star charisma and its lack. It's not as if Wilder is catering specifically to Arthur: Lund has his chance, the material doesn't shut him out.  I wondered more than once if this film would be better if William Holden had played Pringle instead, but that's useless speculation. The principle supporting character is Millard Mitchell's Col. Plummer, and Mitchell is usually an actor who makes me smile when I see him. He's not well-served by the film, even though he ends up acting as the plot's deus ex machina. The actors who play Miss Frost's committee are largely undifferentiated by the film, in spite of the small character bits they get in the film's opening.

As an aside, the picture of American manhood as it relates to women is not complementary in this film. I doubt that it would have been complementary in 1948, but from a post-feminist perspective in 2013, there's a fair amount of horror to be had in watching a couple of American soldiers (who are empowered not just as men but as occupying conquerors) chasing after every woman they see on bicycles. What the fuck, guys? I know the Army is hard, but keep it in your pants, will ya? I've seen cartoon wolves that were better behaved. I guess one era's norms are another era's creepy behavior. But, again, I digress.

Visually, this is one of Wilder's most inventive films. Wilder's black and white films tend toward expressionism (no surprise given where and when Wilder learned his trade). Great whacks of A Foreign Affair were shot in the ruins of Berlin, and as with Carol Reed's Vienna in The Third Man, Berlin acts as a kind of character unto itself. There's a strong hint that Wilder had seen and studied the Italian neo-realists by the time he made this film, because its tour of the wreckage is similar to Rossellini's Paisan, made two years earlier.  The combination of neo-realism and expressionism prefigures the French New Wave, a notion at which Wilder himself would have scoffed. Berlin as a character would resurface in Wilder's work thirteen years later in One, Two, Three, which should be viewed as a companion piece to this film, given that both films show the effects of American capitalist diplomacy on post-war Berlin. The contrast is even more stark in the later film, in which a sleek, industrialized West Berlin is contrasted with an Eastern sector that still looks a lot like the Berlin one finds in A Foreign Affair. Which isn't to say Wilder is uncritical of American capitalism (if you've seen One, Two, Three, you know that's not true) so much as he finds the Soviet way even worse, if only aesthetically. Wilder puts not too fine a point on it when he has his pro-labor congressman suggest that "If you give a hungry man a loaf of bread, that's democracy, if you leave the wrapper on, that's imperialism." Ideology for Wilder is always a choice between evils.

In any event, this is a hole in my cinematic education that I'm glad to have filled. A Foreign Affair is a terrific film. In truth, I'm glad that I still have these kinds of blind spots, because it suggests to me that however much I may think I've seen, there's always more out there.

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