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Friday Film Review: A Foreign Affair

Friday Film Review: A Foreign Affair

A Foreign Affair (1948)
Genre: Romance/Comedy/Drama
Grade: B

This is another winner from director Billy Wilder which shows postwar Berlin digging and being dug out of the rubble of World War II. And it’s a comedy? you ask. It is with Wilder at the helm.

From the IMDB plot summary:

A congressional committee visits occupied Berlin to investigate G.I. morals. Congresswoman Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur), appalled at widespread evidence of human frailty, hears rumors that cafe singer Erika (Marlene Dietrich), former mistress of a wanted war criminal, is “protected” by an American officer, and enlists Captain John Pringle (John Lund) to help her find him…not knowing that Pringle is Erika’s lover. Meanwhile Pringle begins wooing Phoebe to throw her off the scent.

Everyone gets skewered in this one. Wilder shows how dark and dirty all sides were: the Germans scrounging to survive, the various occupying troops from all countries joining the Germans to buy and sell on the black market, Captain Pringle who covers up for Erika, as well as morally upright and uptight Phoebe Frost once she lets her hair down (only figuratively) and falls in love. No ones hands were clean, even the good old US of A – which might account for the reception the film got when it was initially released.

Wilder, who helped write the screenplay as well as directed, interviewed Berliners and Allied troops then sprinkled jokes throughout the film which nonetheless serve to illuminate the reality of the city still clawing its way out of the rubble. As Pringle drives his jeep through the bombed out landscape to Erika’s equally wrecked apartment, “Isn’t It Romantic” plays in the background. Colonel Plummer (a wonderful Millard Mitchell) gives the congressional party a tour of the city including the bunker where Hitler married Eva Braun before they committed suicide. “Some say it was the perfect honeymoon.”

Arthur is perfect as the “wound tight” Congresswoman who discovers love where she least expects it, and who learns that not everything is as black and white as she thought. I’m not sure I totally buy her transformation from hard-as-nails investigator to love struck but I buy each separate half of her. Lund, best known to me as the spurned fiance in “High Society,” shows that he can play the leading man role even if it is a slightly caddish one. His metamorphosis from initial cynic, who knows Erika is just with him for what she can get from him, to truly falling for Iowa corn fresh Phoebe is fun to watch. Mitchell is one of the main sources of black comedy in a role that showcases how hard it must have been for the Allies to try and rebuild a war torn country while also policing it. Yet even he isn’t spared from moments of looking like a talking head who actually believes that baseball can help German youth overcome years of war.

But Dietrich manages to steal the show in a role Wilder had to trick her into taking. Known for her strong anti-Nazi views, she’s totally convincing as a woman who changes her politics “like a spring hat” when it suits her. She sneers at naive Phoebe and snares her in the outcome of a surprise raid on the nightclub where Erika sings. Now Phoebe is one of them and can’t use her influence to send Erika to a de-Nazification camp. As the two walk to Erika’s apartment (“It’s only a few ruins down [the street]“), she tells Phoebe about her life. “We’ve all become animals with exactly one instinct left. Self-preservation. Now take me, Miss Frost. Bombed out a dozen times, everything caved in and pulled out from under me. My country, my possessions, my beliefs… yet somehow I kept going. Months and months in air raid shelters, crammed in with five thousand other people. I kept going. What do you think it was like to be a woman in this town when the Russians first swept in? I kept going.”

Friedrich Hollaender wrote and performed three songs with Dietrich in the film including the wonderful “Illusions” which is sung during a scene which shows Phoebe falling for Pringle as well as the powerful “Ruins of Berlin” with the line “that’s when you realize at last, they won’t return the phantoms of the past” which plays during the scene when Erika’s former Nazi lover is finally lured out of hiding.

It’s cynical, it’s funny, it’s poignant and, as I’ve seen others say, it’s a lesser known Wilder film which deserves a wider DVD release. Right now, it’s only available as a region 2 DVD but it’s scheduled to be shown on TCM on January 24 and February 14th.


Friday Film Review: I Know Where I’m Going!

Friday Film Review: I Know Where I’m Going!

I Know Where I’m Going! (1945)
I Know Where I’m Going! – Criterion Collection
Grade B
Genre: Romance/Drama (UK)

Dear Readers,

I Know Where I’m Going!” is a film made by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger who wrote, directed and produced a number of films in the UK. This one was a kind of “tossed together,” time filler that they decided to make while waiting for color film to become available in order to make “Stairway to Heaven” aka “A Matter of Life and Death.”

It popped up at Netflix on one of those “if you like this you might like that” pages and I liked the blurb so I got it and watched it about a year ago. I had issues with it then but something about it wouldn’t let me forget it. When Jaili/Maili began her Friday Films feature, I decided to email her and ask her opinion of the film for a number of reasons. 1) I respect her knowledge of films and 2) most of the story takes place in Scotland. Anyone who’s read her opinions of novels (supposedly) set in Scotland knows how she feels about them but I wondered what she thought of this film which Powell and Pressburger are supposed to have taken such care to get correct. And what she thought of the issues that I first had with the movie.

Dame Wendy Hiller plays Joan Webster, a modern woman of the age who has definite opinions and designs to move up in the world. She’s almost managed to snag the man she wants – a rich industrialist who appears to have been knighted recently. Now she’s on her way to the Hebrides to marry him. Everything’s going according to plan – and the schedule he’s had made out for her – until she arrives on the next to the last island on her route. Here the weather turns bad with a gale force wind blowing which no one will brave to take her across by boat.

While she initially waits on the dock, she meets a naval officer on leave named Torquil MacNeil played by Roger Livesey. He appears amused at her hurry to reach the island of Kiloran and wiser than she at determining that they’re not going to cross that day or probably the next either. Offering her a place at a nearby house, which has seen better days, owned by a lifelong friend of his, Catriona Potts, they spend the evening with Catriona and another guest of hers, a former Army officer who is a keen falconer.

When the weather is still bad the following morning, Torquil suggests they move to a hotel. As they walk past the ruins of Moy Castle, Joan learns that it is not her fiance who owns Kiloran but Torquil who is the real laird of Kiloran and being forced by economic necessity to rent the island to Sir Roger. On the bus trip to the hotel, Joan first overhears the opinion of the locals about the “rich man” she is to marry. It’s not too flattering. He might be wealthy but he wastes his money, the fish won’t bite for him and the locals would rather not have to deal with him overly much. It’s obvious to most that Torquil is falling for Joan and equally obvious that she is fighting an attraction to him.

But Joan is determined to become the next Lady Bellinger. She takes the opportunity to meet with some of Sir Roger’s London friends who are renting a local estate – and whose daughter is played by a young Petula Clark – then with another of the impoverished local aristocrats. It’s here that she meets up with Torquil again and together they attend a Céilidh in celebration of a diamond wedding anniversary. As the dancing continues, Torquil translates the words of a song which ends with the line “For she’s the maid for me” which he delivers looking straight at Joan. She knows she’s in trouble now.

Joan is almost frantic at this point to get across to Kiloran and away from this man with whom she’s afraid she’s falling in love. Pulling out all the stops, she engineers a trip by boat across the still dangerous waters which include a violent whirlpool. But will her determination get her where she wants to go or cause her to lose everything?

Michael Powell loved the Scottish countryside and it shows in this film. According to the film commentary, the locals commiserated with the film crew about how bad the weather conditions were for filming only to learn that the directors wanted the conditions to actually be worse! We see fog and rain and the lovely cinematography of Erwin Hillier. The film is beautifully shot and full of local color as well as some dialogue in Scottish Gaelic – which I’d love to have a translation of. The film has subtitles for the English dialogue but not the Gaelic. Plus the character of Catriona owns a house full of gorgeous Scottish deerhounds. Torquil comments that Catriona still has the hounds and wonders how she’s managed to keep them fed during the wartime rationing. Jokingly, she replies, “Oh we live off the country. Rabbits, deer, a stray hiker or two.”

The music is wonderful. The title song is one that stuck in my head all these months since the first time I saw the film and the music at the ceilidh is fantastic. But if you don’t like bagpipes, you won’t like that.

Livesey is great in his role though obviously a bit older than his character is supposed to be. If the film were shot today, I don’t think there’s any way that he would ever be cast as a leading man but his face has got character and strength and his voice is one I could listen to for days. He delivers some polite rejoinders to Joan about oddness of character and how lack of money doesn’t necessarily make people poor. He’s such a laid back, easy going man that it takes a lot to rile him but Joan finally manages it late in the film. However, even then, he’s still – mainly – a gentleman and continues to try to get her what she still believes she wants in life. I like that his character doesn’t try to sweep Joan off her feet. Rather, he is content to try and open her eyes to the fact that money isn’t everything nor can it bring her lasting happiness.

Hiller, as Maili says, played strong willed women and Joan is no exception. She’s damned and determined to get what she wants and to get it now even if that might end up being a bone head move that could cost lives. Watching the movie a second time, I could sit back and follow her actions and see what drove her to go to the lengths she does to escape falling for a poor man. But there are still times that I wanted to reach into the screen and shake her for her selfishness. As Torquil tells her, if you want to commit suicide, why not do it in Manchester? Why endanger so many others when you can probably get what you want if you’ll wait til tomorrow? Sigh….

As for this great, instant and overwhelming attraction that is the driving force for much of the actions of the film, it’s definitely a case of insta-love and we need to accept it as such and keep watching the film. Joan’s very driven, quite young, has opinions that she hasn’t yet learned to temper before blurting out and, well, she’s got a lot to learn. She does eventually relax and hopefully with Torquil to act as a buffer, she’ll fit in with the locals but at times I wondered how such a great guy would fall for her so quickly.

There are some marvelous secondary characters who add depth and richness to the story but who are never dumbed down nor turned into caricatures. The scenery is fantastic including the crumbling Moy Castle where Joan and Torquil finally lay to rest the curse that was laid on the MacNeils centuries ago – and which was inserted into the screenplay since the setting was Scotland and the works of Sir Walter Scott have lead viewers/readers to expect such a thing.

The Criterion DVD is well done. The screen images are crisp, the sound is clear, it’s loaded with extras including a commentary track that is well worth listening to as well as stills from the film and a featurette which has, among others, Martin Scorcese telling why he loves the film. I was amazed to learn that Roger Livesey was never on location with the rest of the cast and crew. His close ups were done in the studio and a double did all the work in Scotland but the editing is so seamless that it’s almost impossible to tell the difference. The scene of the whirlpool will look dated today but by the standards of the time it was quite a feat of filming. The DVD I watched is a region 1 but I believe there is a region 2 as well.

The film has some fanatical fans many of whom who have gone to the lengths of traveling to Scotland just to see the filming locations. Apparently the current owners of Moy Castle now keep it locked so that fans of the film won’t risk injuring themselves racing through the ruins. On the other hand, I’ve also read some opinions of the film that question why anyone would like it at all. I’m still on the fence about buying myself a copy of the DVD
but not sorry that I took a second look at it. B