A Foreign Affair (Billy Wilder / U.S., 1948):

Ahead of The Third Man, a mordant eye on Manichean Yanks vis-à-vis European relativism. The postwar view: "Moral malaria" infects American MPs in occupied Berlin, the fumigator is the crusading Midwest congresswoman (Jean Arthur) who ventures into the rubble and is promptly picked up by a pair of uniformed mooks. Her opposite is the chanteuse (Marlene Dietrich) in the bombed-out flat, former Nazi mistress and current peddler of "slightly used, second hand" illusions, practically Brecht's "bitch in heat" in sequined gown. Wedged between them is the Army captain (John Lund) well-acquainted with the black market, a bull's-eye hovers over his heart. "Oh, I suppose that's publicity from Hollywood!" Not Rossellini's crater (Germania Anno Zero) but rather a modulatory cabaret for Billy Wilder, his ruined city traffics in candy bars and cigarettes and mattresses. ("For fifteen years we haven't slept in Germany.") There are Gestapo officers in hiding yet the mood is jaunty and defiantly amoral, politics are fashionable things and swastikas have become a little punk's graffiti. At the center of the vortex is the Lorelei Nightclub with its caustic Frederick Hollander numbers and roaming spotlight, the overarching shift is from the lowdown S&M of Dietrich and Lund to the Ninotchka thawing of Arthur via "The Iowa Corn Song." Newsreel wreckage and chiaroscuro burlesque, the new war in Wilder's homecoming is the one between his leading ladies—the ironic Dietrich mask is chipped just enough for her to spit toothpaste at the camera, Arthur flits nervously until she's frozen in heartbroken profile, silhouetted but for a lone glinting tear. The seduction in the filing cabinet, "my goods behind the screen," the Stars and Stripes on the fräulein's stroller. "Don't tell me it's subversive to kiss a Republican." A key Deutschland to Fassbinder (Die Ehe der Maria Braun), Wilder dispenses with the romance for his next visit (One, Two, Three). Cinematography by Charles Lang. With Millard Mitchell, Peter von Zerneck, Stanley Preger, and William Murphy. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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