Title: A Foreign Affair
Language: English, German
Genre: Comedy, Romance, Drama
Director: Billy Wilder
Richard L. Breen
Music: Friedrich Hollaender
Cinematography: Charles Lang
Billy Wilder’s romance-triangle comedy is set in the Allied-occupied Berlin in 1947, in the face of Hollywood’s entrenched agism and sexism, A FOREIGN AFFAIR is bracingly headlined by two 40-plus female marquee players, Jean Arthur (in her penultimate picture) and Marlene Dietrich, in roles which cagily keep their real ages under wraps.
Arthur plays a prudish American congresswoman Phoebe Frost of Iowa, scandalized by the dissipation she witnesses of American soldiers in the rubble strewn city, she is headstrong in making an example by finding out the American officer who is clandestinely protecting a German torch singer Erika von Schlutow (Dietrich), a woman with a Nazi past. Naturally and provincially, Captain John Pringle (an amicable and amenable Lund), another Iowan, is elected as her aide, but little does she know, John is the man she determines to uncover.
So to sabatoge Phoebe’s tenacious investigation, John starts to woo her and hope the flirtation can distract her, and indeed, it works (Wilder stages a fluid filibustering resistance before the pair landing their first kiss, and near the end, with a role-changing iteration), but of course, it is the bean-spilling moment that sells the tickets, when Phoebe and Erika share the same limelight, their conversation may well pass the Bechdel test, but what is at stake is a winning/losing game towards a man’s love and the less glamorous Phoebe is the honorable also-run, as it seems.
A looming revenge plan from one of Erika’s Nazi ex-lovers, is thrown into the game in a very late stage to precipitate a switcheroo, Wilder could never allot Erika too much time in the winner’s corner simply because his anti-Nazi ire, which presumably gives a certifiable license for its tepid ending.
Jean Arthur, for one last time, stretches her crow’s feet and psyches up for a straitlaced-to-smitten transformation, gives a fine presence but she is on a hiding to nothing in comparison with Dietrich’s sultry stature and sing-song poise, especially when those ditties are written by the eminent Friedrich Hollaender (BLACK MARKET is a humdinger), Dietrich is never a singer’s singer because of the discernible vocal stricture, but the combo of her contralto timbre and exterior élan is simply par excellence.
While Wilder doesn’t hide his personal attachment with the city in ruins, striking aerial shots bearing testimony of something its US audience may not realize at then, retrospectively A FOREIGN AFFAIR is a minor Wilder-Brackett’s output because of its frothiness and a deus ex machina perhaps dished up without much deliberation.