‘A Foreign Affair’ or — A New Leaf with Extra Bite?
Billy Wilder’s ‘A Foreign Affair’ (1948) is a charming and delightful romantic comed…
Hang on… stop! STOP! Look, ‘A Foreign Affair’ is certainly a comedy, and a very funny one at that, but it’s in no way delightful or charming and it certainly isn’t romantic. Tasteless, crass and acidic as hell yes, but anything else other than that?
Want an example? How about this –
John Lund’s US army Captain Pringle is driving through the bombed out ruins of a devastated Berlin whilst whistling ‘Isn’t It Romantic?’ from Rouben Mamoulian’s ‘Love Me Tonight’ (1932) on his way to visit his Nazi lover and with the word “killer” written underneath him on his jeep. Is this some sort of sick joke? ‘A Foreign Affair’ might, ostensibly, concern a love triangle but it’s also about PTSD, trauma, morality in conflict, sexual and political hypocrisy, genocide, war crimes, emotional manipulation and psychological abuse, all of which Wilder and co-writer Brackett mine for LOLS. Just listen to Col. Plummer’s guided tour of the city if you want proof of that.
Meanwhile the love triangle concerns upright Republican congresswoman Ms. Frost (Jean Arthur) who has come to Berlin to discover the cause of American troop’s “moral malaria” only to find herself becoming entangled with Lund’s Captain Pringle as he desperately attempts to stop her from discovering that he is the one protecting Marlene Dietrich’s nightclub singer, and former Nazi, from prosecution. The thing is Ms. Frost is somewhat, and how can I put this delicately… buttoned up? Prim? Either way she’s utterly vulnerable under her glasses and with a heart aching to be loved so urgently that she’s a prime target for emotional exploitation, and ‘A Foreign Affair’ kicks the living crap out of the poor woman.
All this would be unbearable if it wasn’t for the fact that Arthur’s performance is so god damned hilarious. There’s a scene at the beginning where all she has to do is put away her pen and glasses, but look at how many precise steps she takes to do so and how perfectly she executes them all! Or how about her giggle when she pretends to be German? Or the hysterical, and heartbreaking, way she finally squeaks out her first name “Phoebe”? Your heart breaks for her even though, or maybe because, we’re laughing so hard.
Although Arthur’s finest moment is when she descends the stairs in a beautiful black dress which she describes, on reaching the bottom, as looking like “a circus tent in mourning for an elephant that died” (I had to pause the movie for almost a full minute at that line I was laughing so hard).
Meanwhile, Captain Lund notices that Phoebe, I mean Ms. Frost, hasn’t been able to put her dress on properly so he has to reattach all the straps in the correct fashion (she had her back strap connected to her neck) and it was here I went “Ah! This is exactly the same scene from Elaine May’s ‘A New Leaf’ when Matthau does the same thing with May’s klutzy Henrietta.2 In fact, there’s a lot of ‘A New Leaf’ (1971) here (a vulnerable woman exploited by a rogue) with Arthur’s Phoebe being an obvious influence on May, although Ms. Frost is such a great character you can feel the irresistible impulse to see what else could be done with her.
The only problem is that Jean Arthur is so good here that when she drops out the film for the final act (something necessary for other plot points to be tidied up) I was sorely missing her so much I didn’t care too much about everything else.
Fortunately everything else is still great with Dietrich providing an excellent vamp (the scene when we discover just HOW close she was to the Nazi party is phenomenal and ridiculously outrageous) and her blistering putdowns at poor Ms. Frost’s expense are delicious in their savagery, whilst Lund’s seemingly caddish Captain Pringle also has some excellent moments. In fact, here’s some homework for you — when you watch the film look closely and see if you can spot the exact moment Captain Pringle puts his finger in Ms. Frost’s inkwell… so to speak. It’s a fantastic and brilliantly orchestrated tiny detail that contains a huge laugh when you spot it.
I can understand why ‘A Foreign Affair’ isn’t regarded as classic Wilder as it isn’t a romantic comedy at all more than it is a torture device on which to inflict pain on poor Phoebe, I mean Ms. Frost. Not only that but the end has a slight feel of “Oh, well I guess that makes everything else okay then!” and appears maybe a little too late in the day to convincingly save or reorientate any sympathies.
Still, ‘A Foreign Affair’ is a well made, very funny, nicely lit, sharp comedy with some great costumes, loads of killer lines and a deep satirical bite. Although to go back to the Mamoulian song and the question it asks at the beginning, ‘Isn’t It Romantic?’ No. Not in the fucking slightest.