CRITICS ARE used to hearing some variation on the question, "Why don't they make movies the way they used to?" And sometimes critics themselves ask the question.
But "Shining Through" is the answer. It is well and truly made the way they used to. And, like oh so many movies made the way they used to, it's pretty darned lousy. (Remember, for every "Casablanca" there were one hundred "Mortal Storms.")
A "romantic World War II thriller," it blithely re-creates many of the tropes of that genre: coincidence, improbability piled upon improbability, now and then an absurdity so preposterous it makes you grin in spite of yourself, a back lot World War II that has a cozy, cheesy feeling to it, a tin pan drumming on the themes of sacrifice and courage so unconvincingly imagined as to render them hopelessly banal, and, of course, stars rather than characters.
Naturally, the stew has been somewhat cosmetically "updated," with the addition of two motifs that could not possibly have been present in a '40s picture: The first is fairly explicit sex, much less expressive (in my opinion) than the elaborate vocabulary of gesture and shadow that symbolized The Act in the real thing. Second is a New-Woman spunkiness that was equally unimaginable back in World War II; in fact, Melanie Griffith seems less an undercover operative of the OSS than of NOW.
Griffith plays Linda Voss, a Queens secretary who speaks German "with the accent of a Berlin butcher's wife" (her movie grandmother was a German Jew) and English with the accent of a Southern California surfer chick (her real mother was a movie star). Her bilingualism gets her a job with a tony bank that's really a front for U.S. intelligence, where she becomes No. 1 gal to Michael Douglas' darkly Waspy Ed Leland. He likes her spunk. He also likes her breasts. In a few weeks, they're making le whoopee every night -- another unbelievability in chaste 1941.
The movie is set up similarly to "For the Boys," as a reminiscence 40 years after the fact, and Griffith's breathy, dingy narration bridges epochs with prose as purple (and as painful) as a day-old bruise: "For me, there would be no more symphonies with Ed -- just the sound of drums, as America marched to war." Once the shooting starts, Griffith notes that Douglas is "a full military colonel," as opposed, one supposes, to a non-military colonel, and lord knows there are enough of those running around.
Douglas is imagined by writer-director David Seltzer as a dark, cruel, sexy, brooding His Lordship type, as Laurence Olivier used to play them. But . . . what a creep! How can you like a guy who goes to the USO in a full dress uniform and carries on as if he's the young prince among fishmongers? He even pulls rank on a tech sarge, who should have broken his jaw. Douglas spends so much time glowering that you think he's constipated. Get this boy some Ex-Lax, Jack.
The "plot" is hopeless hokum, as Griffith is infiltrated into a Third Reich run by idiots and morons (these guys couldn't conquer Glen Burnie, much less Europe) and with unbelievable ease and luck manages to locate the "rocket secrets" she's been sent in to find in about two easy days. The last step between her and pay dirt is a padlock. And where are padlock keys always stored? Why, above the door, of course! Those nutty huns!
Cynics will have a laff riot pointing out the more inane absurdities. My favorite was the brightly lit telephone booth in downtown World War II Berlin, and my second favorite was that old familiar Mr. Nasty Nazi with the pale effete face and the one eyebrow cocked with theatrical quizzicality as he examines Griffith. And my third was Griffith's escape from Berlin in a peignoir and mules. And a stomach wound. On foot. In midwinter.
As for Griffith, she remains a puzzle. Somewhat doughy-faced, and lacking the professional actress' voice control, she nevertheless has Marilyn Monroe's childish sexiness that lets her dominate a scene as long as nobody else in it bothers to act, which is why she teams so nicely with Douglas. When she's up against a pro -- Joely Richardson, Natasha's sister and the daughter of director Tony Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave -- she gets blown into the woodwork.
Richardson is spectacular -- beautiful, commanding, ironic, droll, fascinating as a German aristocrat playing at espionage as if it's a charming little game. She nearly saves the movie: Never in the course of dramatic conflict have so many -- David Seltzer, Melanie Griffith and Michael Douglas -- owed so much to so few.
STARRING: Melanie Griffith and Michael Douglas
DIRECTOR: David Seltzer