Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Out Of The Ruins
When TCM ran Billy Wilder’s A FOREIGN AFFAIR on their weekly series “The Essentials” recently I was impressed that co-host Alec Baldwin seemed to be slightly perplexed that they were showing the film. As the actor put it to Robert Osborne, aside from the presence of Marlene Dietrich and how the film provides a look at Wilder’s recognizable style at a point where it was still in development, he found it to be a film with numerous problems including the casting of one of the leads and for him these flaws meant it didn’t quite qualify as an “Essential”. I was impressed by this partly because these days you don’t often see somebody on TV say ‘Here’s what I don’t like about what we’re going to show you!’ and also because while I don’t know much about what Alec Baldwin likes—does he only go for the confirmed classics?—I found myself kind of agreeing with him. His viewpoint was considerably unlike Cameron Crowe who in his book “Conversations With Wilder”, which I try to always keep within arms reach, completely praises the film and proclaims it, “The undiscovered classic”. Wilder acts proud of it to Crowe, but also points out that, “Nobody ever talked to me about this picture.” Make no mistake that as far as I’m concerned A FOREIGN AFFAIR, released in 1948, is a very good movie and does certainly present an invaluable look at Wilder’s style during a key stage in his career (among other points in its favor) but having said that it still doesn’t feel like the masterpiece that several other of his films from this period are. And I say that as somebody who regularly worships at the altar of Billy Wilder, who never wants to be too far away from my DVDs of several of his best films. In recent years the reputation of ACE IN THE HOLE seems to have gone from unsung flop to confirmed classic but I’m not sure how many people other than Cameron Crowe are making such a case for A FOREIGN AFFAIR. I’d love to be as enthusiastic but there are some issues including in the casting and the writing that for me mean that it just misses being in the top tier of his work, as valuable to history as the entire film is.
In post-war Berlin, Congresswoman Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur) arrives from her home state of Iowa (“62% Republican, thank you,” she proudly states) with several Congressmen for an inspection of the troops. Horrified by the wild behavior of what looks to her like America soldiers wildly cavorting with comely fräuleins, she becomes particularly curious about the possible Nazi past of cabaret singer Erika von Schlütow (Marlene Dietrich) and who might be protecting her. She enlists Captain John Pringle (John Lund) to aid in her investigation, not knowing that Pringle is in fact the officer she’s looking for. He tries to woo Frost to throw her off the scent but he soon has to deal with the possible jealousy of Erika while elements of her own past have yet to fully come to light.
Shot partly on location among the ruins of post-war Berlin, it’s very much a work by Billy Wilder which is made obvious as soon as we see lead actor John Lund driving a mattress he’s just procured for his German lover through the bombed out streets as a jaunty version of “Isn’t It Romantic” plays on the soundtrack. Containing what at one point is essentially a documentary tour of Berlin giving a brief Hollywoodized feel of Italian neorealism with acidic asides-–“Over there, there’s the balcony where he bet his Reich would last a thousand years. That’s the one that broke the bookie’s hearts,” it’s hard to imagine what director out there today would even think about making a contemporary version of this type of material—some of the dialogue about how things are going in Berlin does sound somewhat familiar in this day and age. On a historic level alone, A FOREIGN AFFAIR probably was never appreciated very highly by the military of the U.S. State Department but it deserves to be better known if only for what it documents (the setup has a passing resemblance to Steven Soderbergh’s unsuccessful pastiche THE GOOD GERMAN). But while its unapologetic feeling in its portrayal of post-war Berlin is genuinely cutting aided by strikingly beautiful black and white cinematography by Charles Lang, the romantic comedy aspect in this screenplay Wilder, Charles Brackett and Richard L. Breen has always felt somewhat weaker, making the film seem more mild in the end than it needs to be even with the surroundings and all that amazing dialogue (“Don’t tell me it’s subversive to kiss a Republican!” as well as maybe my favorite, “And it wasn’t, if you’ll pardon the non-Aryan expression, Kosher.” ).
Maybe Wilder’s thoughts were (understandably) elsewhere considering everything that was surrounding him in Berlin but the telling of the story feels like it can’t reconcile the American-to-the-bone feelings of its two leads in the end with the life force of Nazi bitch Erika as played by the legendary Dietrich (who, it should be said, was a devout anti-Nazi who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for extensive work for the USO during the war and who needed convincing before she agreed to accept this role) who is nevertheless its most layered character as well as mind-bogglingly sexy even when seen in close-up with a mouth full of toothpaste and spitting water at her leading man in her very first scene. I mean, really, has there ever been anyone else like Marlene Dietrich on this planet? Jean Arthur’s comic skill allows for the demonstration of her character’s preciseness when we first meet her which is about as good a character introduction as you can imagine but in the early going she seems to be too much of a comical figure, with her hair always up in a bun making her seem a little too matronly (“a face scrubbed like a kitchen floor,” as von Schlütow laughingly describes her) and trying too hard to seem prissy. When the character loosens up, with the actress embracing playing a prissy person learning to loosen up for the first time by buying into the illusions of forbidden Berlin she works much better (although, interestingly, even then she never literally lets her hair down). As she belts out “Ioway (That’s Where The Tall Corn Grows)” in a nightclub winning over everyone around her it’s hard not to be charmed and I still can’t get that song out of my head. John Lund, an actor who was being pushed for a stardom at this point which never really took and who Crowe makes a big case for, isn’t bad and comes off as a somewhat earth-bound Clark Gable but he seems a little weak in comparison to his leading ladies, not making as much of an impression as he should and it’s hard not to imagine other stars of the time who could have worked better—Grant? Holden? Mitchum? Hell, Gable?
One thing that is made interesting is that it’s a film where the male lead is in his mid-thirties and playing opposite two women well into their forties—they don’t necessarily look much older than him but they certainly seem much more worldly and mature. In a sense, A FOREIGN AFFAIR is about a boy caught between two women, the spunky youth of the WWII era with no interest in going back home to boring old Iowa and ultimately has to decide between the bosom of matronly middle America and the undeniably more enticing Germany, albeit one of secrets that can never be forgiven. He’s a fairly likable scoundrel but as played by Lund never seems like he’s charasmatic enough to fully deserve either woman. It’s not a choice that you can get a really satisfying answer to in such a biting satire dealing with such serious matters and it’s almost hard for me to believe the light-hearted nature of the end. I’m not sure I believe that Billy Wilder believed it. What Wilder presents throughout very much feels like the ambivalence of someone who fled Berlin in 1933 and lost his family in the camps, displaying a combination of pure love and unforgiving hatred that he had for that city and the people who survived to live there. He doesn’t paint the Germans still around as evil—as she presents it, Erika had her reasons in doing what she did to survive but they’re nnot anything that could ever be at all dismissed. She’s certainly not an innocent who was forced to do the things she did and is even spotted in a newsreel coyly whispering into the ear of Hitler himself. Wilder’s lack of total judgment towards Erika could very well come from memories of certain women he knew in Berlin back before he fled—Ed Sikov’s essential Wilder biography “On Sunset Boulevard” (that’s right, I’ve got several books on Wilder) also contains information on a bizarre treatment written by Wilder, Ernst Lubitsch and Jacques Thery in 1939 titled HEIL, DARLING! about an American correspondent who falls in love with a beautiful Nazi doctor (presumably similar to Garbo in NINOTCHKA), an idea which now sounds like a bad joke and was, obviously, never filmed. The director’s feelings of ambivalence only went so far, of course, and according to one account while looking at aerial footage of bombed-out Berlin an assistant editor remarked that he couldn’t help but feel sorry for the Germans, at which point Wilder jumped to his feet and yelled, “To hell with those bastards! They burned most of my family in their damned ovens! I hope they burn in hell!” Decades later after seeing SCHINDLER’S LIST he spoke of looking for his mother while viewing the scenes of Jews being put onto the trains and out from these very raw feelings came this romantic comedy so the bitterness from both sides is there but a few of the other elements aren’t quite as strong. I’m not sure how they possibly could have been.
When Dietrich is on screen the film has soul and it becomes something else entirely, more resonant, more alive, more than it ever does when we’re focusing on our American protagonists which is interesting in a dramatic sense but still makes it play a little lopsided. When the story pauses to let Dietrich sing in the nightclub where some of it is set on several occasions (unforgettable songs by Frederick Hollander), it’s haunting. It stings. It has a pulse that is undeniable. When Frost and von Schlütow, the two rivals who by all accounts should hate each other finally begin talking with all pretenses put aside that blood continues to flow. The rest of the film has sharp wit in the dialogue, memorable imagery in what we see all around where things take place but it feels like it just falls short because we can almost sense the unsatisfying payoff things are building to. There’s also some plot near the end involving luring someone out of hiding that feels a little brushed off, as if Wilder just wasn’t very interested, not with everything else around him. Its best moments are so strong, so significant in the context of post-war filmmaking that it almost seems a shame that it has to revert to the standard expectations from neatly wrapping things up.
Wilder, for his part, seems to have been pleased by Lund, saying, “He was good, but he was not great,”—maybe he regarded the actor as easy to deal with when compared to Dietrich and Arthur who were each handfuls in their own way. Dietrich was enamored completely with her own self but the director got along with her unlike the much more insecure Arthur who called him on the phone forty years later to tell him she had finally seen the film, it was wonderful and she was sorry for how she behaved. It’s too her credit how much she holds her own with she and Dietrich really get to play off each other. And while it’s a fair argument that when you have Marlene Dietrich in your movie playing a role like this you almost don’t need anyone else but it still feels a little like there’s an unfortunate lack of supporting characters, someone for either the Lund or Arthur characters to interact with. The character of Pringle could probably use a best friend to bounce off of and the congressmen who accompany Frost almost come off as something like the elderly professors in BALL OF FIRE but aren’t vivid enough to serve this function and don’t have much screen time anyway. Millard Mitchell, the studio head in SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, does have some nice moments throughout as the Colonel in charge of everyone, continually scratching the side of his nose with his middle finger and smart enough to know that he only has so much power over his men in the streets of Berlin where anything goes.
Even if it was Billy Wilder’s most personal film, which he seemed to confirm to Cameron Crowe, that alone doesn’t make it his best and the concept of The Essential, however TCM categorizes it, is probably up to the individual seeing any one particular film. Maybe some that remain problematic decades after they were made are just as essential for their own reasons as the classics the entire world seems to agree on. It contains certain flaws, but A FOREIGN AFFAIR is alive, vibrant, has reams of quotable dialogue and is of some historic note. It just lacks in perfection. And maybe you could say that a Billy Wilder film lacking in perfection, especially one that contains Marlene Dietrich, is pretty close to perfect anyway when compared with everything else. And, essentially, perhaps that’s all that really matters.