A Foreign Affair

Ring a Ding Ding

Foreign Affair (1948)

I find it difficult to resist films featuring Marlene Dietrich or Jean Arthur but for entirely separate reasons. Whereas Dietrich is fascinatingly powerful and seductive in her typical roles, Arthur is adorable, innocent and hilarious. For the two of them to appear in a film together was a rather unexpected find, but quite rewarding.

A Foreign Affair involves the two rather opposite women fighting over the same man, but that is not the plot of the story. Arthur plays a congresswoman who is visiting Germany to analyze the morale of soldiers in the post-war occupation effort. Dietrich is a German singer who performs in a club meant to be off-limits to soldiers, and she might also have been close to a major Nazi influence during the war. While there, Arthur as Phoebe discovers that one of the soldiers has shielded this singer, Erika, from scrutiny because he is carrying on an affair with her. That soldier is John Pringle (John Lund), who has also agreed to help Phoebe search out the scoundrel and in the process starts to fall for her. Torn between two women, his passion and his duty, and kept busy by attempts to cover up his involvement, John is careening toward a world of hurt if he is found out. The real trouble, of course, is in explaining himself to Phoebe and convincing her that he does care for her.

Arthur began the film behaving utterly unlike the characters I am used to seeing her embody. She wears glasses, has a somewhat goofily conservative hairdo, and is too busy taking notes on every passing moment to enjoy the view from the airplane. As she begins to loosen up through her contact with John, she enjoys life’s experiences rather than jotting them down and even buys a dress on the black market to be appropriately clad for that off-limits club.

Dietrich began the film also in a persona unlike what I typically see. We first meet her in a small flat ravaged by the war, wearing the simplest of clothing and fawning over a pair of nylons John brings her. I would not have called her helpless at this stage, but she certainly failed to exude the power customary of her roles. That changes, however, when we see the glittery and glamorous Erika perform at the club. As the film goes on, her confidence and cleverness shines through, especially when standing off with Phoebe.

A Foreign Affair is also a visually attractive film, despite being set in the ruins of Berlin. Director Billy Wilder oft uses reflections to complete his shots. Two specific devices –a mirror in Erika’s home and a window in the club– are used as a means to show two people in one shot with only one of them directly in front of the camera –one of my favorite cinematographic devices.

I would highly recommend A foreign Affair. It is a great combination of humor, drama and serious emotional situations, and I do not think any other actresses could better have filled the roles.

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3 Responses

  1. Jean Arthur is one of my very favorites as well. She is outstanding in Shane. You ought to review that too. 🙂

  2. Have you seen all the films Dietrich films Dietrich made with von Sternberg? They reflect the step-by-step creation of a film persona/legend. The last, “The Devil is a Woman,” was her favorite of all her films and at the top of my list with just a few other gems.

  3. I adore ‘A Foreign Affair’ – and personally, I was greatly intrigued by the relationship Erika had with John. Highly sexually-charged with a hint of violence – a bit unusual for a film made in the 40s. But there’s Billy Wilder for you.

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