#17 in my Ranking of Billy Wilder movies.
There’s a certain oddness to one of the central relationships in this film that lends itself to a certain reading that the movie never really follows through on, and the ending doesn’t quite feel right. However, the rest of it is the same level of character, easy plotting, and great dialogue we have come to expect from Billy Wilder and his writing partner Charles Brackett.
It’s post-war Berlin. The city is still a ruin. There’s no industry anymore. The few residents left are living a barter existence through the black market. The US Army has taken complete police control over certain sections of the city, and one army captain is using his place of authority to protect and lord over an attractive German woman. The scene that introduces Captain Pringle and Erika von Schlutow is brimming with a dominant, submissive relationship. Pringle holds Erika’s livelihood in his hands. He brings her a new mattress that he traded a cake from home for, and he threatens to not give it to her. He doesn’t even ask for anything. He places his hands on her throat. It’s an odd dynamic that the movie never really pursues, though there are easy implications for the nature of the relationship between an occupying force and the occupied.
The cake was brought by an Iowa congresswoman at the behest of one of her constituents, Pringle’s old flame from back home. The congresswoman, Phoebe Frost, is part of a committee visit to ascertain the wellbeing of the American troops stationed in Berlin. She’s essentially the polar opposite to Erika. Erika is a sexpot, singing in black market nightclubs in glitzy dresses with hair spilling out around her head. Phoebe where’s business dresses, keeps her mouth small when she talks, and has tightly styled hair on her head. The irony is that Phoebe starts investigating Erika with Pringle, but Pringle is the one who forged Erika’s paperwork to allow her to work. The problem is that Erika was the squeeze of a very powerful Nazi official and Pringle had no idea.
And that creates the central tension in the film. Pringle wants to defend Erika, but in order to do that he has to throw Phoebe off the track for the few days she’s in Berlin, and the only way he can figure out to do that is to seduce Phoebe. They’re both from Iowa, and Pringle is an attractive man giving a mousy woman attention. Seducing her isn’t that hard. She’s enamored with him very quickly, but Pringle himself can never quite disconnect from either.
The inherent conflict is most of the movie and it makes for an entertaining mix of light comical farce and drama. The ending, though, tries to combine both and I’m not sure it really works. Erika gets hauled off after her Nazi squeeze comes out of hiding for her and gets shot. Phoebe then is able to pursue Pringle in a wave of relief after she thought he had died instead. The visuals of her going after him evoke an earlier scene where he had gone after her initially. In the earlier seen, she was pulling out drawers to block his way, but Pringle simply closed them and kept after her. In the later scene, Pringle is throwing chairs between them and Phoebe is knocking them away. So, while there’s a nice visual echo within the moment, the fact that it ends on a lighter note just doesn’t feel right. The Pringle and Phoebe relationship was always a sham, and the idea that it ends happily somehow feels wrong.
Still, the movie as a whole is quite entertaining. I know some people rank this as one of Wilder’s best movies, but I have to rank it lower. It’s good, but doesn’t come close to the heights of some of his other films.
Netflix Rating: 4/5
Quality Rating: 3/4