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A Foreign Affair
Your October RMC Results Are In!

Tagline: It would make a cigar store Indian laugh ...

Preshow Entertainment: SHATNER'S RAW NERVE


Wow. I'm so happy the Random Movie Generator spat out this film. See, I am a huge Billy Wilder fan. He's my favorite filmmaker (but beware, on other days I may answer "Hitchcock"). Long ago, I devised a scheme that would allow me to see Billy Wilder films for the first time. Here is my secret: I intentionally didn't watch them all. Yep, I deprived myself of movies just so I could experience them for the first time at a later date. In a way, I am hoarding intellectual property. So although I've seen nearly all of Wilder's films many, many times, there are a select few that remain unseen. And tonight, I got to see one of them. Tonight made me happy.


War-torn streets of Berlin
WWII is over, and a planeload of congressmen spearheaded by Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur) is on its way to the ruins of Berlin to investigate the morale of the troops. But when proper, by-the-books Frost gets wind that an American soldier is protecting a woman with ties to the Nazis (Marlene Dietrich as Erika Von Schluetow), she gets right on the case. For help, she enlists Captain John Pringle (John Lund), but little does she know that it is Pringle himself who is protecting Von Schluetow. And little does Pringle know of her Nazi ties.

A FOREIGN AFFAIR has all the ingredients of a top notch espionage thriller. But ready? It's a comedy. Sure, there are moments of drama (especially in the finale), but this movie is a farce. Shot in post-wartime Berlin (Wilder not only got complete approval, but was encouraged by the German authorities), we get to see actual footage of a city destroyed. A city where everyone is opportunistic; the Americans, Germans, Russians, everyone. In fact, Von Schluetow herself explains, "We've all become animals, with exactly one instinct left - self-preservation." To wit, the Brandenberg Gate (one of the only structures in that area that survived WWII) has become a bizarre bazaar where people trade nylons for chocolate bars, mattresses for birthday cakes, and in the case of Phoebe Frost, a woman who abhors such black market behavior, a beautiful dress for her typewriter (it was six extra typewriter ribbons for the shoes).

But what made Frost turn, and in such a short time? How did the only righteous person in the film get corrupted? Well, I don't have to tell you that she was swayed by that thing that corrupts the best of us - The McRib sandwich. Sorry, I was distracted. The answer, of course, is: love.

Though I enjoyed every single actor in this movie, Marlene Dietrich stands out as a one-time Nazi Hag (I didn't just say that, did I?) now relegated to singing heartbreaking songs of grievous irony in a club. Like the war-damaged apartment she lives in, Von Schluetow is a bombed-out empty artifact of what she once was, and Dietrich conveys it all. She seems to be the only one who truly knows how life works, whether she likes it or not.

Also of note, Jean Arthur, whose clear portrait of a woman protecting her emotions with an overly ripe righteousness is fun to watch. Just witnessing the way she meticulously puts her stuff away is hilarious. Wilder holds the camera on her forever. Offscreen, however, Wilder had his hands full with both women, as he is quoted: "I have one dame who's afraid to look at herself in a mirror and another who won't stop looking!" Arthur didn't even see the movie until years later.

AFA also treats us to a fascinating travelogue through the ruins of Berlin. This is where Frost first catches a few eyefuls of soldiers courting Frauleins, noting all in her little book. And it's when she breaks away from this tour that leads to an hysterical sequence, where two soldiers pick her up while they're trawling for Frauleins (sounds like a Fox reality show). She lets the charade (they think she's a German woman) continue to see what the soldiers say to her. The next thing she knows, she's in a club where she sees Von Schluetow perform (when she takes the stage, a single spotlight tracks her like a POW camp searchlight). It's a great song, "Black Market", that drips with sadness, as does a later song ; "Want to buy some illusions, slightly used, just like new..."

My favorite scene, however, takes place in the File Room where Frost is determined to find Von Schluetow's file. Here, both she and Pringle swap monologues about their past, and it's a great moment. Funny and sad and true all at the same time. Even the choreography/filibustering (you'll know what I mean if you've seen the movie) is perfect. Wilder at his best.

But what really impresses me is how they pulled off shooting a comedy so soon after the war was over, and amid the results of 75 tons of bombs. I'd like to see a filmmaker do that today. It's not like there aren't any war-torn countries. But who would make this film today? Michael Bay? Steven Soderbergh? Brett Ratner?

Wilder had an ear for dialogue, eye for detail, nose for humanity and teeth for biting sarcasm. And let's not omit the crackling cynicism, a trademark of his. How else can a comedy be whittled out of such tragic events? The humor is sharp yet soft, like Pringle using a hand signal to make a turn in his Jeep, though he's the only vehicle on the ravaged road. Or Von Schluetow inviting Frost over to her place: "Let's go up to my apartment. It's only a few ruins away from here."

The saddest thing about A FOREIGN AFFAIR is that it's (as of this writing) unavailable on DVD. So if you don't catch it on TCM (whose print is dark and murky, unless Wilder was trying his hand at chiaroscuro cinema), or live in a country where it's available, you're out of luck. The good news for me is that I got to see a Billy Wilder film for the first time. There are a few more in the RMC library, so maybe I'll get to see another new Wilder movie soon.


Shatner interviews Leonard Nimoy
Shatner's great, but he's not an interviewer. And it's doubly awful because it's a "casual" show, largely unscripted. It better be. I'd hate to think they did a pre-interview. This is a show that starts nowhere and goes south. "Just end!" That's what we kept screaming. Man, I thought this would be fun, with all the history of these two loving and hating each other for 40 years.

And that's too bad, because although I'm not a STAR TREK nut (I do kinda like the original series, but not much more than that), I so like Shatner. I loved him in both of his TWILIGHT ZONEs and on BOSTON LEGAL. I like him on talk shows. I love love love HAS BEEN, his CD. But this is not the proper venue for him. I mean, do we really need to hear Nimoy yap about his photography prowess when he was 13? Only to have Shatner interrupt with questions that are so off story it's infuriating? But, if you want to know how Leonard Nimoy broke the news of his divorce to his father ("I was physically shaking."), well then this is the show for you.

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