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‘Shining Through’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 31, 1992

If the fate of the free world were being threatened by goose-stepping Nazis, who would you send to the rescue? In "Shining Through" they send Melanie Griffith.

What, you mean Betty Boop wasn't available?

Griffith plays a half-Irish, half-Jewish woman from Queens, who, with her head full of Hollywood fantasies, goes to work as a secretary for Michael Douglas, a lawyer who, it turns out, is a high-ranking officer in the OSS. When the Allies lose their main man in Berlin, after he's uncovered plans for a "bomb that flies by itself," they need a quick replacement. And Griffith, who spoke only German to her Berlin-born grandmother, springs into action.

"Here, taste my strudel," she tells Douglas, who for some inconceivable reason -- her baby doll giggle, maybe? -- doesn't think she's up to the job. "I made it just the way they do in Berlin."

Must have been some strudel.

In "Shining Through," director David Seltzer tries to conjure up our fond collective memories of old romantic war movies to create an old-fashioned brand of melodramatic entertainment. In one scene, he even tries to evoke "Casablanca." But the miscasting of Griffith here is so atrocious that we keep being thrown out of the picture. It's meant to be a taut spy film, full of heroic daring and last-minute escapes, but one of the elementary laws of the cinema is that it's tough to let yourself get caught up in the suspense of the moment when you're laughing your noggin off.

Just to hear this working girl spy say "Heil Hitler" will send you out of your chair. And added to that, Griffith, in voice-over, narrates her own story, and never was an actress less suited to the task than this one. She makes the fatuous exposition sound even dumber than it is to begin with.

Douglas is no better in the role of the sober-sided Ed Leland, who falls in love with his secretary even though she pricks holes in his pompous facade. "Are you always like this?" he asks during her job interview.

"I forgot to tell you," she banters back. "I'm Irish on my mother's side." "A lethal combination," Leland retorts.


The bottom line on their affair? She makes him laugh. (Susan Isaacs, who wrote the novel on which Seltzer's script was based, must have gotten a PhD in the work of Harold Robbins.) Offering his profile bravely to the camera, Douglas seems slightly embarrassed by the thought of playing a conventional romantic hero. It's a sheepish, withdrawn performance in which he gets caught staring blankly into the camera with his mouth hanging open like a carp. (What has happened to that lower lip of his anyway? A fishing accident?)

Seltzer moves the action along briskly in the picture's early scenes, and there are even some endearing moments early on between Griffith and Douglas. But once Griffith is sent behind enemy lines, the movie goes completely to hell. For his part, John Gielgud -- who plays Griffith's contact in Berlin -- appears game, but, at the same time, fully aware that he's sloshing through trashy waters. Every syllable drips with impatient disdain. That noble head of his deserves a more suitable showcase.

"Shining Through" is rated R for nudity and frank language.

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