FEBRUARY IS BILLY WILDER MONTH
If their parents were movie lovers, any Boomer’ll tell you that A FOREIGN AFFAIR, Billy Wilder’s rollicking 1948 look at the postwar experience in Berlin, was a title often bandied about the house as one of the greatest pics ever! I know it was at Casa Neuhaus (and from the lips of my folks’ friends as well). It is a very progressive movie, and certainly an adult one; it showed that American cinema was growing up, and that the then-fourteen-year-old Production Code better get ready to be shaken to its gills. Oh, BTW, a fantastic new Blu-Ray, from Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Pictures is now available for Golden Hollywood fans’ viewing pleasure.
The movie was a personal one for director/cowriter Wilder, who cowrote the script with his usual partner Charles Brackett, plus Richard Breen’s additional assist (adaptation by Robert Harari, from a story by David Shaw). Wilder, who was able to follow his dreams to Hollywood, desperately tried to get his parents out of Germany. The up-and-coming writer-director used his influence, but was stymied by his own mother and father, who refused to believe the rumors of death camps, and chose to stay in their homeland (both perished). Wilder was going to pull no punches in his uncovering the hypocrisy on both sides of the fence. True, the former Nazis were starving and suffering (yay!), but so were the innocents, and the Occupation countries (America, the UK, France, the Soviet Union) took full advantage of the situation, via a thriving Black Market, financially and sexually. And that was the crux of A FOREIGN AFFAIR. To add realism to the proceedings, Wilder received permission from the government to actually film much of the movie on-location (a rarity in 1947, when production began), and the footage is devastating. Paramount not only rolled out reams of publicity from this fact, but also used excess footage to pad other pics, like Sealed Verdict, which dealt with the still on-going Nuremberg Trials.
Of course, maybe Billy Wilder wasn’t the only one who would find such American pluck treachery funny, but he was certainly the only one (at the time) who could make it funny. And he did.
Flying from the United States to post-war-torn Berlin is yet another of a seemingly neverending gaggle of righteous American congressmen and women. Among the most prim and proper of the bunch is the suitably christened Phoebe Frost, representing the great state of Iowa. Bespectacled, humorless, hair pinned up and looking like every librarian who ever “shushed” frightened youngsters, Frost is rabid for blood. Anybody’s. The determined woman is out to check up on American morale in the less than convivial surroundings. What she finds is astonishing. Giggling frauleins wheeling baby carriages with American flags; basically, people getting rich and getting laid at remarkable rates (or as wise Colonel Rufus J. Plummer puts it “parlaying a pack of cigarettes into something more than twenty smokes”). It would be a mild understatement to say that Pheobe’s shocked, but that merely this iceberg’s tip. Congresswoman Frost is carrying a birthday cake parcel for one of her constituents, Captain John Pringle. Problem is Pringle is the Bilko of the Black Market network, having his hand in everyone’s pie – but mostly in that of (literally) the beauteous Erika von Schluetow, a chanteuse with a shady past. How Pringle attempts veer Frost off von Schleutow (by trying and achieving a melt faster than the current glaciers in Alaska), and ends up falling for her himself (but still reluctant to give up Erika) evolves into a mad melee of double entendres, romantic adventure, hilarious situations and even suspense (fleshing out a vengeful ex-Nazi, aspiring to reclaim Erika and to revive the Reich).
The cast is flawless, led by the great Jean Arthur as Phoebe; this could be her finest performance (the sequence where she meticulously packs up an attaché case in one take should have won her an Oscar!). As Pringle, the underrated John Lund likewise gets his finest role; a gifted light comedian, the leading man was usually handed one-dimensional, stiff no-brainer roles (catch him in Miss Tatlock’s Millions, he’s also wonderful in that). Best of all for movie goddess buffs, is Erika von Schluetow – well, Marlene Dietrich, who, along with this triumph (and the previous year’s Golden Earrings, another Boomer Procreator fave) cemented her status as a permanent A-lister, never again to be tainted with the tag “box-office poison.” Dietrich being so Marlene effortlessly releases a barrage of “oh, no she dint!” snaps on Arthur’s character. She also gets to sing several songs, which became standards for her in the entertainer’s subsequent career as a mega-successful nightclub performer. “Black Market,” “Illusions,” and “The Ruins of Berlin,” all written for her by pal Friedrich Hollaender (who also composed the lovely score, and, with Wilder, became part of the pic’s Bavarian kaffeeklatsch – and is seen on-screen as von Schluetows’ accompanist in the notorious dive she sings in).
There are so many fantastic moments in A FOREIGN AFFAIR that it’s hard to pick the best; however, I’d say my favorite is the sequence where Pringle vainly tries to play down von Schluetow’s participation in the Third Reich “A few minor Nazis,” offers the Captain to Frost, regarding the scandalous woman’s old acquaintances – a claim totally kiboshed by simultaneously screened captured grainy newsreel footage showing Dietrich’s Erika cavorting with Hitler.
Much of the joy of this movie is due to the first-rate supporting cast surrounding the three leads. Millard Mitchell is key as the sarcastic Plummer, with Gordon Jones, Stanley Prager, William Murphy, Peter von Zerneck, Damian O’Flynn, Freddie Steele, Henry Kulky, Harry Lauter, Paul Panzer and Edward van Sloan trailing behind.
You couldn’t ask for a better Blu-Ray 1080p transfer of A FOREIGN AFFAIR (Jeez, those awful 1960’s 16MM MCA prints!), sparkling in 35MM with beautiful contrast (only intermittent slight emulsion scratches occasionally mar the B-D viewing journey, but it’s a small price to pay) finally doing justice to the grand monochrome cinematography Charles Lang. There’s also the original theatrical trailer (as well as a gallery of other Wilder movies available from K-L), and audio commentary by the excellent Joseph McBride.
My only bittersweet comment on this release is that my parents aren’t around to enjoy this edition. I close my eyes, and can practically hear their contagious laughter filling our old Washington Heights apartment. And now I’m smiling.
A FOREIGN AFFAIR. Black and White; Full frame [1.37: 1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Pictures. CAT # K23894. SRP: $29.95.