A Foreign Affair (1948)

Satire was always Billy Wilder’s favorite weapon, from his first American hit—he wrote the screenplay for Ninotchka (“Garbo laughs!”)—to Some Like it Hot and The Apartment. Even his darker pictures are interspersed with humor. Who can forget the chimpanzee’s funeral, complete with Erich von Stroheim in white gloves playing “Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor” on the organ, at the beginning of Sunset Boulevard?

Set in postwar Berlin and hyped as a comedy (“It would make a cigar store Indian laugh…”), A Foreign Affair is full of lighthearted touches. A pair of enlisted men cruising the streets on a tandem bicycle, armed with chocolate, posterlooking for fräuleins, prim Iowa congresswoman Jean Arthur attempting to ward off her would-be seducer’s (John Lund) advances by opening one file cabinet drawer after another and, when finally cornered for a kiss, reciting “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” in a valiant effort to quell her own passion.

But there’s Marlene Dietrich, sultry as ever, performing in the Lorelei Club—a postwar version of the seedy nightclub where the German actress was introduced to us in The Blue Angel (1930). “Falling in Love Again,” the melancholy song composed for her in that film by Friedrich Hollaender, feels positively upbeat when compared to the numbers Hollaender composed for this one.

They had a touch of paradise, a spell you can’t explain. For in this crazy paradise, you are in love with Pain. — “Illusions”

We’ve already gotten an aerial viewmore ruins of the bombed-out German capital from the congresswoman’s plane, and seen various characters picking theie way through the rubble at night. Still, we’re unprepared for the bitterness that undercuts the jaunty tune of “In the Ruins of Berlin” or the sado-masochistic kick of “Illusions.”

Wilder, an Austrian Jewish emigré whose family had been murdered by the Nazis, had no reason to sympathize with the plight of ordinary Germans struggling to survive amid the devastation, and yet despite the laughter, A Foreign Affair leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. ‘What do you think it was like to be a woman in this town when the Russians swept in?” Dietrich’s character asks the congresswoman. “I kept going. It was living hell. And then I found a man, and through that man, a roof, and a job, and food and – and I’m not going to lose him.”

Not surprisingly, the film was withdrawn from circulation, its “rotten taste” denounced on the floor of the House of Representatives. “Berlin’s trials and tribulations are not the stuff of cheap comedy, and rubble makes lousy custard pies.” But as Steven Bach tells us in his biography of Dietrich, the actress was featured on the cover of Life and was  generally seen as having stolen the show.

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Double Indemnity

Raymond Chandler’s classic discussion of the noir genre, “The Simple Art of Murder,” includes the famous line

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.

The detective in this kind of story, Chandler says (thinking of Dashiell Hammett’s Marlowe) must be such a man. And the point of the story is not so much solving the murder as seeing how the character of the hero unfolds. His redemption is what makes the story work, what makes it art, as opposed to schlock.

Chandler was writing within a schlock genre, but he aimed to create art. “To exceed the limits of a formula without destroying it,” he said, “is the dream of every magazine writer who is not a hopeless hack.”

When Billy Wilder brought him in to write the screenplay of James M. Cain’s novella, Double Indemnity, Chandler got his chance. tumblr_okydzvPUWB1uybf9ro2_1280Cain’s hero, Walter (Fred MacMurray), is a smart guy whose talents are wasted in his job as an insurance salesman. He isn’t really played by Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck), the lonely wife of a wealthy man who wants to cash in on her husband’s accident insurance policy. He plays himself:  the murder is a challenge, a high-stakes game that’s more of a turn-on than Phyllis.

When I met Phyllis I met my plant. If that seems funny to you, that I would kill a man just to pick a stack of chips, it might not seem so funny if you were back at that wheel, instead of out front.

Chandler took this motivation, but he made it more explicit by having Walter narrate the story of his crime to his boss, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). Walter was attracted to Phyllis from the get-go; he saw her standing at the top of the staircase, wearing nothing but a towel. “I wanted to see her again. Close, and without that silly staircase between us.”

But he went into the relationship — and the crime — with his eyes open. What makes him nervous isn’t the fear of getting caught. He thinks he has that little wrinkle figured out. All he has to do is to murder Phyllis, and pin the murder on the young man he believes she’s two-timing him with, the boyfriend of Phyllis’s step-daughter, Lola. His boss, Keyes, already suspects the two of them. Piece of cake.

Then Walter surprises us. He realizes the boyfriend is not in cahoots with Phyllis and sends him back to Lola, takes the rap after all. WHY?

It’s about redemption, Watson. Chandler told us that. He confesses the whole sordid tale to Keyes, and Keyes forgives him. Yeah, he’s going down. He doesn’t care, so long as Lola knows the truth. And as long as Keyes understands.

Funny Girl

Watching this film again, I was surprised to find that I still have all the songs memorized.  Blame Gina Weiss, who was obsessed with Barbra Streisand and used to sing the soundtrack to “Funny Girl” during chemistry in eight grade.  It got so all of us at Gina’s table could join in, when we weren’t trying to set the lab on fire.

I’ve liked Streisand in a lot of films over the years, but none of her subsequent roles suited her as well as Fanny Brice.

Fanny Brice: If I can’t tell when you’re ordering roast beef and potatoes, how will I know when you’re making advances?

Nick Arnstein: You’ll know. I’ll be much more direct.

Of course, it helped that she was playing opposite Omar Sharif.  The two began an affair during the shooting of “Funny Girl,” and it shows.  You see it when they finally kiss, in the alley behind Fanny’s mother’s saloon after her first big success as a Ziegfeld girl, and when Nick makes that advance of his, between the paté (chopped liver) and the Boeuf  à la Bordelaise (roast beef).

But you REALLY notice it at the end, when they split up and she sings “My Man.”

Apparently their real-life romance was also ending, with both preparing to return to their respective spouses.  The director, Billy Wilder, kept Sharif on the set while Streisand was singing, just out of sight, because he knew that his presence would bring out her deepest feelings.

Sharif tells the story in his memoir of how the Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt broke out while “Funny Girl” was being filmed.  Both Wyler and Streisand threatened to quit if he was removed from the cast.  Wyler, a Jewish refugee from Vienna, made the case most eloquently:  “We’re in America, the land of freedom, and you’re ready to make yourselves guilty of the same things we’re against?”  When the film was released abroad, with a publicity shot showing the two actors kissing, the Egyptian press agitated to get Sharif’s citizenship revoked.  In true Fanny fashion, Streisand got off the best retort:  “Egypt angry!” she said. “You should hear what my Aunt Sarah said!”


French champagne.  One sip and you’ll become a convert to capitalism.  Trust me, it works.

melvyn-doulgas-greta-garbo-ninotchkaThere’s Greta Garbo’s humorless Soviet envoy, a model revolutionary if ever there was one.  She believes in the righteousness of the cause and has nothing but contempt for the west.  “The last mass trials were a great success,” she assures her three comrades. “There are going to be fewer but better Russians.”

Ah, but she is in Paris. Who can resist the charms of the city of light?  Here she is, meeting the dissolute Count Leon d’Algout—the man to whom she’ll owe that first taste of champagne. He’s already corrupted her comrades, and it isn’t long before Garbo succumbs to capitalist culture.  First she buys a silly hat, next a gown, and when she goes back to Moscow, she can’t resist bringing along a bit of silky French lingerie.

The stunning dialogue was written by the Hungarian author and screenwriter Melchior Lengyel, with help from the Austro-Hungarian-born filmmaker Billy Wilder.  Melchior also wrote “To Be or Not to Be,” and both films were directed by German expatriate Ernst Lubitsch.  You can see the European sensibility at work; both films have the same bite, and yet there’s nothing heavy-handed in “Ninotchka.”  As the count knows, the best way of subverting the enemy is to make ’em laugh.