What’s this — everybody’s favorite working girl, Melanie Griffith, chirping. “Heil Hitler!” as troops of Nazi soldiers goose-step past her? Never fear. In this lavish film version of Susan Isaacs’s bestselling 1988 novel Shining Through, Griffith has been cannily cast as Linda Voss, a poor but enterprising German Jewish secretary from Queens, New York. And what brings Linda to Berlin at the start of World War II is not any misplaced passion for the Fnhrer. Linda has turned in her steno pad to act as an undercover agent for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).
Shining Through is an awful lot of fun for a movie that’s nothing more than slickly packaged fluff. It helps that writer-director David Seltzer retains a good measure of the book’s smartass zing. It helps even more that Griffith is just about perfect as the wisecracking sweetheart of the OSS. She’s basically playing the same Cinderella role that won her an Oscar nomination in Working Girl. Then, she was Tess McGill, a Staten Island secretary whose ambition overcame social and educational barriers on her climb to the top. As Griffith told Harrison Ford in the film, “I’ve got a head for business and a bod for sin — anything wrong with that?”
Nothing that the makers of Shining Through could find. Linda is Tess in Forties fashions, with the stakes raised from career advancement to life or death. When she enters the Manhattan office of attorney Edward Leland (Michael Douglas, in what is essentially the Ford role), Linda knows she’s not the Vassar type he’s looking for in a legal secretary. But she also knows how to seize an opportunity; in her job interview she tells Leland what secrets she can learn about him from a quick glance around his office.
Griffith shows an unexpected flair for the script’s rat-a-tat dialogue. Her sparring with Douglas (also in fine form) suggests those bracing Thirties comedies in which a snappy comeback is the ideal prelude to seduction. Linda has another ace up her sleeve: Leland needs a German translator, and her immigrant father taught her the language. Linda takes a romantic interest in Leland — he’s grouchy but cute — but her lust doesn’t blind her to those codelike references in his mail. This lawyer is really an OSS colonel.
They have an affair, natch, allowing Griffith to show off that bod for sin. They also battle when Linda wants to go undercover in the home of a ranking Nazi official. Leland thinks it’s too dangerous; Linda thinks it’s an adventure right out of her favorite Hollywood movies (Passion! War! Betrayal!). Besides, she has relatives in Berlin, and she wants to get them out.
Shining Through plays like one of those movies Linda loves — the kind you crave on a rainy day when the brain switches to escape mode. As empty experiences go, it’s a pretty good one. Linda’s farewell to Leland is right out of Casablanca, and her foray into Germany — colorfully shot by Die Hard‘s Jan De Bont — tips a nicely parodic hat to Hitchcock’s Notorious.
In Berlin, Linda’s spy contacts include the infamous Sunflower (a sharp cameo from John Gielgud) and the German glamour puss Margrete Von Eberstein (Joely Richardson), whose mother is a pianist revered by the Nazis. Margrete introduces Linda for the fun of seeing her mother “kiss a Jew.” Margrete is a juicy role that Richardson — the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave and the late director Tony Richardson — plays with an irresistible blend of mirth and malice.
Linda begins as a servant in the home of a Nazi official who trusts her to supervise a dinner for leaders of the Reich. The dinner is a riotous disaster, salvaged only by Linda’s meeting with Franz Dietrich (Liam Neeson), a widowed Nazi officer who hires her as a nanny for his two children. No one in the OSS dreamed that Linda would make a connection like this. No one who read the Isaacs book would dream it, either. Dietrich is a sympathetic Seltzer invention meant to indicate that all Germans didn’t sprout horns. Though Seltzer’s attempt to add complexity to the clichTd spy genre is admirable, it’s also a drag on the movie. When Linda takes Dietrich’s children along to look for her family, the film stops cold to deliver lectures about humanity that are incongruous amid the entertaining nonsense that surrounds them. In the past, Seltzer has shown a sentimental streak as a screenwriter (Table for Five, Six Weeks) and a strained seriousness as a writer-director (Lucas, Punchline). He indulges both weaknesses in Shining Through, giving an overblown, self-important cast to a movie that should float like gossamer.
The same ailments afflicted Fox’s recent nostalgia piece For the Boys, but this time the damage is minimal. Shining Through gives us a woman warrior to match any macho counterpart. In a moment bursting with her beloved passion and betrayal, Linda blows away an enemy to save the world for Uncle Sam. Seltzer errs by including a scene in which Leland carries a wounded Linda. Nobody carries this baby. Whether Linda Voss is a heroine or just an ordinary woman up against it, Griffith plays her with enough screw-you-buster courage and crack comic timing to earn a salute.