Thorough, profound, astonishing, and insufferable imbecility envelops the screen in Shining Through, a Hollywood-formula spy thriller-romance set in a woebegone World War II, finding a permanent home there for two hours and twelve minutes. It's one of the worst movies to come my way in a long while, which is not to say that it doesn't have its one or two diverting moments. There's little in the story - or indeed the storytelling - to inspire any but the terminally ignorant, but with such lapses in common sense, historical authenticity, and above all, taste, abounding as they do, devotees of unintentional humor should pop open the celebratory bottles of bubbly ASAP. Shining Through is a howler.
Told in a series of flashbacks as she's interviewed by the BBC for a broadcast about women during the war, Linda Voss (Melanie Griffith) remembers the year 1941. A half-Jewish secretary from Queens who loves war movies, she searches for a just cause in the months before the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor and lands a job in a New York legal firm that hires her because she speaks perfect German. Linda's boss, Ed Leland (Michael Douglas), is an American spy, and Linda, a quick study, picks up on this as she falls in love with Ed. After war breaks out, she's sent by Ed, now her boss at the Organization for Strategic Services, to replace a murdered operative in Berlin, posing as a cook in a German mansion. The rest deals with Linda's attempt to uncover records pertaining to Nazi rocket technology from the cellar of a young German general (Liam Neeson), and also follows her attempt to save some relatives from a fast-approaching holocaust. She's helped by Margrete von Eberstein, a stylish agent seemingly sympathetic to the Allies (Joely Richardson), and a petrified old one (John Gielgud), whose code name is "Sunflower." And, of course, by Ed.
It's the kind of story, really, that made America's wartime romance-thrillers so delightful despite their obvious, propagandistic flag-waving. The formula also relied heavily and successfully on charismatic stars. You blend the attractive-repulsiveness of Humphrey Bogart and the ethereal loveliness of Ingrid Bergman, add a few seasoned character actors (and they don't come any better than Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet) and there you have it. Needless to say, it's a difficult genre to resurrect today: despair over Vietnam still lingers, and the surgical precision of Desert Storm left us numb. War movies, like war, are usually hell.
Written and directed by David Seltzer, whose previous credits (Lucas, Punchline) would scarcely make him the obvious directing choice to assume the task of re-creating the wartime-movie genre, the film aims for the nocturnal allure and mystery of Casablanca and the technicolor, retrogressively romantic approach of more recent movies such as Hanover Street and Yanks (both released in 1979). And it misses by the longest of shots. But this is an ambitious proposition, to be sure, especially for a director who said recently in a TV interview that getting the period detail right wasn't a first priority. Well, David, don't worry your pretty little head on that score; the slipshodness of Shining Through would boggle Oliver Stone.
Seltzer sledgehammers his way throughout the film with little regard for period and style considerations. The language consistently betrays contemporary roots, and indeed the attitude of the Griffith character carrying on like a sisterhood-is-powerful feminist of the early 1970s is all wrong for a woman of the Forties. When Griffith queries Douglas about one of her favorite recent war movies (this is 1941, remember), it's as if she were mentioning something as ancient as the Egyptian Sphinx: "Did you ever see it?" she asks. As for musical cues, Seltzer's watered-down nostalgia serves no good cause: ubiquitous big-band versions of "In the Mood" and "Moonlight Serenade" are cynically employed merely for atmosphere. Meanwhile, when the Nazi general escorts Linda to an evening of "Von Karajan conducting Wagner," we see someone not unlike the withered Karajan of his last years direct Tristan and Isolde in the pit; but this conductor, very popular in Hitler's day, was then in his early 30s. And Seltzer's view of an Andrews Sisters-era nightclub could be New York's Studio 54 of the late Seventies, with everything intact except the coke spoons and Hamilton Jordan snorting off in a corner. The inexactitudes drizzle on in this film like English weather.
What of the cast? Awfully entertaining or simply awful? It's hard to decide. The most difficult to swallow is that persistently puerile Melanie Griffith -a performer hitherto cast mostly in contemporary comedy for her preadolescent squeak of a voice, infant's pout, and trashy-voluptuous body - playing a half-Jewish intelligence agent braving death behind enemy lines. And she's bilingual here, don't forget. (In this movie, you can hear a German accent speaking English one minute, then American and English accents speaking German the next with subtitles, all the while giving the impression that the Nazis lost the war not because of moral squalor, but because they couldn't understand a word anyone was saying.) Early in the picture, Griffith is lauded for her Deutsches diction, which is said to sound "like a Berlin butcher's wife." A great deal is made of this Berlin butchery, but Melanie Griffith doesn't cut the German mustard, I'm afraid. She looks like a Berlin butcher's wife well enough - worn, slightly puffy-eyed - but her command of the language couldn't pass muster for a Berlin butcher's baby.
In the right mood, though, Shining Through can be enjoyed for its sheer ridiculousness. The funniest bit of outrageous storytelling and acting comes when Linda forges a last-ditch campaign to ask Ed for the spy job in Berlin. Holding a tray of homemade pastry at his door as if her maiden virtue were on display, Griffith points to it and whines obstreperously, "Here. Eat my strudel! Go ahead! Taste my strudel!" (Naturally, she gets the job.)
Sold on Melanie's strudel for more than half the film, poor Michael Douglas does his best apace with her. But Douglas appears to be content staying outside the main course of the plot, appearing as wizened and diminutive as Joel Grey. And what, finally, is to be done with 88-year-old John Gielgud? His teeth probably can't take strudel any more, yet his diction and carriage remain unimpaired, as exemplary and fine as the rubbish he's given to speak in this film is execrable and absolutely beneath him.
Which brings me to the most important question: With so little to recommend them, how do movies this inflated still get made? Mucho bucks obviously went into this production, which was shot on location in England, Germany, and Austria. The picture credits nowadays read like names in the Manhattan telephone directory, and I shouldn't be surprised if "Chief Sandwich Maker to the Director" and "Assistant to the Chief Sandwich Maker of the Director" appear very soon. However, one unsung hero who deserves a mention amidst this phantasmagorical array of expendables is Medusah, listed here as "Hairdresser for Ms. Griffith." With 214 different hairdos (I lost count thereafter) over the span of a 132-minute film, Melanie Griffith's strands almost match Faye Dunaway's Mommie Dearest in color-conscious unsightliness, making Melanie the most copiously coiffed Mata Hari ever witnessed - outside the transvestite underworld,
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Written and directed by David Seltzer; with Michael Douglas, Melanie Griffith, Liam Neeson, Joely Richardson, and John Gielgud.