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.Continue Reading
There has never been a screenplay quite like Charles Brackett and director Billy Wilder’s screenplay for their 1950 opus Sunset Blvd. It’s a macabre gothic noir comedy about the ghosts of Hollywood past. It’s one of those films, though a first-string classic, where the myths and back-stage stories are just as memorable as the film itself. For a legendary cynic like Wilder it was his ultimate drubbing of the hand that fed him. For star Gloria Swanson it was the ultimate film comeback (ten times more unlikely than, say, Travolta in Pulp Fiction). And for her co-star William Holden it began a decade of big performances in important films that cemented him as a major actor. In a time when the studios controlled their products as well as their own image with an iron fist, it’s shocking that Sunset Blvd. ever got made.
Narrating from a swimming pool of a rundown mansion, a floating corpse tells his story of how he ended up there. Down-and-out screenwriter Joe Gillis (Holden) can’t land a new assignment and is on the run from debt collectors. With a flat tire he hides his car in the garage of that rundown mansion. Invited in by the home’s butler, Max (Erich von Stroheim), to lend a hand for the funeral of a monkey Joe soon meets the mistress of the house, one-time silent film star, Norma Desmond (Swanson). She lives with only one foot in reality. Her decrepit house is filled with photos and mementos of her former self from her glory days 30 years earlier. Eventually she employs Joe to write...
Von Ryan’s Express
Two of the best action subgenres of the 1950s & '60s were the POW escape films (Stalag 17, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Great Escape) and train adventure flicks (Narrow Margin, The Train, Dark of The Sun). So what would happen if you combine the two? You get a really fun, utterly ridiculous, totally memorable movie from ’65: Von Ryan’s Express. Besides being a train adventure, what sets this one apart from other POW flicks is the adversary. While the prisoners of Stalag 17 and The Great Escape were housed in German camps and Kwai had Japanese overlords, the captives of Von Ryan’s Express are stuck in an Italian camp. And whether based on any kind of truth or not, Italian guards just don’t feel as cruel or deadly as their other Axis Powers partners. Based on a novel by David Westheimer (who also penned the novelization of Days of Wine and Roses), with the solid journeyman director Mark Robson (Earthquake, Valley of the Dolls) at the helm, this was made in the heyday of Frank Sinatra vanity projects and as usual he often feels miscast as an actual human being. On paper his role seems better suited for a more obviously physical presence, like a Lee Marvin. After all, Sinatra looks like he would be more comfortable with a martini in his hand than a machine gun, but his skinny frame in a wrinkled military outfit only lends to the absurdity and the fun.
A depressed group of mainly British prisoners in an Italian camp get a load of energy into their squalid existence when American Colonel Ryan (Sinatra) shows up, having been shot down in Italy. The highest ranking officer before him showing up was the very English Major Fincham (the always watchable Trevor Howard, in the more hammy late phase of his impressive career), who doesn’t like being pushed around by the runty Yank. When Ryan sees the poor condition of the health of the men, he rats out the tunnels they’ve been digging, in order to get the medicine the wacky Italians have been holding from them. But Ryan slowly earns the Brit’s respect by getting them new clothes and taking his punishment in the “sweat box.” Later, when it appears the war is coming to an end, the Italian guards flee giving the POWs free reign. They take off through Italy but are eventually caught again and put on a train headed for Rome, which is now overseen by nasty Germans who kill all the sick men. This is where the more original action setpieces start, as Sinatra and the boys take over the train and then have to ride it out of Italy while posing as Germans. In maybe the most bizarre scene, a British doctor (Edward Mulhare) who speaks some German poses as a Nazi high command to get the clearance for the train trip to continue and the two fifty-somethings, Howard and Sinatra, dress up like Nazi soldiers to accompany him. They must be the two oldest looking privates in the German army and actually resemble the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow when they dress up as flying monkey soldiers in The Wizard of Oz. What a sight for sore eyes!Continue Reading
Witness for the Prosecution
Almost forty years after her death in 1976, Agatha Christie is still the queen of the mystery novel. Her characters, including Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, are seemingly just as popular and prolific today (mostly on television now) as they were when she first invented them. Though many of her stories have been adapted for film, only two--by my recollection--have lasted the test of time. In '74 Sidney Lumet made a solid Poirot story, Murder on the Orient Express, thanks to a great cast led most memorably by Albert Finney. But even better was back in ’57 when Witness for the Prosecution was directed by the superstar director Billy Wilder. First appearing as a short story, Christie later turned it into a play. But Wilder and his two co-screenwriters, Larry Marcus (who would go on to co-write the brilliant screenplay for The Stunt Man) and Harry Kurnitz (the play A Shot in the Dark) would open it up for the screen and add the wonderful role of Miss Plimsoll for actress Elsa Lanchester, giving her an opportunity to share the screen with her husband Charles Laughton. Ironically, a TV remake and most stage adaptions of the play since have included the role, a Wilder invention, not a Christie one.
In England, big-time defense attorney (barrister) Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Laughton) is on the verge of forced retirement due to health issues. He has a full-time nurse, Miss Plimsoll (Lanchester), on his case, nagging him to rest and give up his vices. But when Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) appears at his door, about to be indicted on murder charges, Sir Wilfrid is too intrigued to pass the case up. Vole, a handsome and married playboy (and American, though that is never acknowledged), is accused of murdering a much older woman who took a shine to his charms and conveniently had just changed her will, making him the beneficiary to her fortune. Vole reasonably explains his side, and it does appear to be circumstantial evidence stacked up against him. Vole's passionate German wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich) backs up his story. But when the trial comes along, strangely Christine is called by the prosecution, claiming Vole admitted to killing the old lady and painting a terrible picture of both herself and her husband. The great Wilfrid looks to be defeated until a greedy Cockney woman sells him some current love letters exchanged between Christine and her secret lover. The new evidence shows that the wife lied and it is enough to prove Vole’s innocence and end the trail. But Sir Wilfrid knows it was all too easy and there is something amiss. And here we get the great, shocking M. Night Shyamalan twist that Agatha Christie and her ilk specialized in.Continue Reading