Movies We Like
Stalag 17 is flawed, but entertaining Billy Wilder. It’s not in the great director’s top tier, which would include Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, and Some Like It Hot. Some might put The Apartment in that top group, but I would put it in the second group with Ace In The Hole, Witness For The Prosecution, and Stalag 17 (that third level of his films is also still very interesting and might include One, Two, Three, The Major And The Minor, Kiss Me, Stupid, Sabrina, and The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes).
Stalag 17 is the story of WWII American soldiers, prisoners of war in a Nazi camp, based on a popular play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski. In recent years there was talk that director Spike Lee was going to restage it on Broadway with British actor Clive Owen, but it never happened. The film adaptation by director Wilder and Edwin Blum is said to follow the stage version pretty closely. It’s been made less stagy by opening it up, out of the barracks and into the camp around them. The POWs live a boring and cramped life, working whenever possible to put one over on their German captors. One POW, Sefton (William Holden), is an "operator" trading favors with the guards, running a still and a betting track. He is a survivor, in it for himself. When he places bets against his fellow Americans it alienates him from his prison mates even more.
When two of the prisoners are caught trying to escape, they realize they have a rat in their midst and all eyes are on the wheelin’, dealin’ Sefton. It becomes a mystery at that point and a study in mob rule. Who is the rat? At first Sefton could care less, but after he takes a beating and has his business busted up by his fellow captives, he sets out to find the rat. When he finally figures out who has been leaking info to the barracks' big burly guard, Sergeant Schulz (Sig Ruman, a former pro wrestler), it leads to one of the great film confrontations. And one of the coolest endings in film history.
One of the flaws, through today’s eyes, is the humor. Repeating their roles from the Broadway show Robert Strauss as Animal and Harvey Lembeck as Shapiro are the barrack clowns. Their antics can come off as a little dated - in one weird scene a drunk Animal sees the Betty Grable in Shapiro - it’s almost like something out of Olsen & Johnson. The humor elements played much better in the television show based on Stalag 17, Hogan’s Heroes. On that program everyone was a clown, especially the Nazis. There was no life and death at stake; the POWs secretly ran the camp. And this e camp commandant, von Scherbach, is no bumbling Colonel Klink. As played by Otto Preminger (a major director himself, of such classics as Anatomy Of A Murder and Laura), he’s a political animal making him an ambitiously scary Nazi.
The film is narrated by Sefton’s lackey, Cookie (Gil Stratton). This continues Wilder’s reign as the master of film narration, as with Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard before it Wilder is able to seamlessly and dramatically give us information without us noticing it. Every scene does not have narration, only in some cases. It's textbook film making at its best.
Coming off the heels of Sunset Boulevard as Stefton, William Holden is given another great cynical role and gives the best performance of his career. Apparently Wilder’s first choices for Sefton were Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston or Kirk Douglas. But like Sunset Boulevard before, where Holden was a last minute replacement for Montgomery Clift, it’s now unimaginable to have anyone else in the role. Holden would win an Oscar for his work (beating Brando and Clift as well as Burt Lancaster and Richard Burton). He would go on to do another classic POW film with the master David Lean, Bridge On The River Kwai in 1957 (he was in two of the three greatest POW flicks ever, the third of course being The Great Escape, with kudos to Nagisa Oshima’s underrated Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence).
In that post-WWII period of Hollywood so many of the war films felt rah-rah, they were celebrations of American heroism. Going on at the same time was the Film Noir period which often looked at the dark underbelly of American life. With Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity Billy Wilder tapped into that pessimistic view of the world. In Stalag 17 he was able to make a "war film" that showed men as desperate survivors. Even when "Johnny Comes Marching Home Again" plays, it’s not the usual gung-ho feeling, it’s a dark mood and, with Billy Wilder at the helm, you know it’s a dark world out there.
Stalag 17 won an Oscar for Best Actor (William Holden). It was nominated for two additional Oscars: Best Director and Best Supporting Actor (Robert Strauss).