A Foreign Affair (U)|Home Ents Review

Dir. Billy Wilder, US, 1948, 116 minutes

Cast: Jean Arthur, Marlene Dietrich, John Lund, Millard Mitchell

Review by Colin Dibben

Marlene Dietrich steals the show – and an odd moral high ground – in this tantalising taste of a great movie.

Uptight congresswoman Phoebe Frost (Arthur) arrives in post-war Berlin to report on occupying US troop morale. She is shocked to discover US troops ‘fraternising’ with Berlin women and profiteering through the black market.

Frost’s escort, Captain Pringle (Lund), is doing all of this. He is also protecting Erika (Dietrich), a Nazi-affiliated night-club singer, with whom he is having an affair. Can he keep his dealings away from the prying eyes of the bossy congresswoman?

The film’s serio-comic tone is striking, epitomised in Arthur’s performance, the satirical script wise-cracks and the presence of wonderful character actor Millard Mitchell, as Pringle’s senior officer.

But this tone isn’t very convincing. The satire is obvious and the jokes aren’t funny. It might have been a better film as a thriller in the vein of The Third Man. But then again, that wouldn’t be a Billy Wilder film would it?

There are big issues at play here but the Wilder approach keeps the whole thing light and unexamined, which is surely just another way of whitewashing the message. As Mitchell’s colonel says about the news: “you know how they cook it up with a lot of marshmallow on top”. Isn’t Wilder’s approach just a different kind of marshmallow?

Frost is a cliché for too long to be interesting, although there are some good character moments as she melts into Pringle’s arms.

Dietrich is carefully deployed, perhaps even underused. But there’s a subtle balancing act going on here: to play off the pragmatic ethics of survival (as embodied by Erika and Pringle) against the moral strictures of the home front (Frost), without annoying censors.

Dietrich’s songs of survival sound a little unexceptional now but must have raised eyebrows back in the day. As with heavily censored Mae West films from the 30s, the songs are very short (compared to the musical numbers you often find in B movies of the period) – and just offer glimpses of a weary and cynical world view. But at last they are delivered in Marlene’s signature ‘transvestite’ bark.

A key scene between Arthur and Dietrich spells out the dark heart of the movie: this is a tale of vengeance, on the parts of both victor and survivor.

A Foreign Affair is out on Blu-ray on 22 June 2020.