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Stalag 17 was a big success for Billy Wilder, just when he needed it. After bursting on the scene like a ball of fire, pardon the expression, he'd been the toast of the town up until 1945's The Lost Weekend. Then came The Emperor Waltz, a real misstep followed by the unfairly maligned A Foreign Affair. The masterpiece Sunset Blvd. did well but was no blockbuster, and Wilder chased it with the equally brilliant Ace in the Hole. It unfortunately turned into a box office disaster; Paramount tried to sneak it out under the title The Big Carnival but the title whispered around town was "Ass in the Wringer."
Good though it may be, Stalag 17 is definitely a retreat-and-retrench picture for Wilder: No more noir fatalism. His next three outings would be two romantic comedies and a tribute to an American hero. Wilder prided himself on being a do-it-all creative powerhouse but the first two are from Broadway plays by other writers. Although he liberally re-wrote Stalag 17 Wilder wouldn't return to totally original work until I.A.L. Diamond and Love in the Afternoon. 1
Stalag 17 is the smart, safe move for Billy Wilder and only a retreat for him in that it is in some ways against his personal preferences. He was moving toward ever-darker subject matter but his audience wasn't following. They didn't think that black market corruption in Berlin was funny, and his Hollywood gothic was aimed at (for 1950) something of a rarified audience. Ace in the Hole's outright indictment of the American system seemed to offend everyone. Stalag 17 breaks new ground with a prison camp story. The character Cookie (Gil Stratton, the big-time sports announcer) tells us that he's sick of movies about Frogmen (a Robert Wise movie), Flying Leathernecks (a Nicholas Ray movie) and Guerillas in the Philippines (a Fritz Lang movie). I'm not sure there was a WW2 POW camp movie, not even a straight drama, before Stalag 17.
Wilder doesn't give up his hard edge, but his humor becomes broader. Robert Strauss and Harvey Lembeck play a pair of baggy pants clowns straight from a burlesque stage, and some of their antics get tiresome quickly. Wilder uses Strauss' fantasy girlfriend Betty Grable as an excuse for drag humor, when Strauss imagines that Lembeck is Grable. It's played almost identically to Mack Swain's mistaking Charlie Chaplin for a giant chicken in The Gold Rush. This hint of perversity at least lets us know that Billy Wilder still thought along the same lines.
The serious part of the story is suspenseful and engaging. Wilder's excellent cast includes director Otto Preminger as a martinet commandant and Sig Ruman as Sgt. Schultz, the deceptively jolly German guard. The camp is no joke, with the bodies of two dead GI's laid out on the assembly field. The prisoners live in a depressing sea of mud, while vigilantism threatens in the ranks. The already unstable Duke (Neville Brand, one of the more brutal noir psychos) is ready to execute Sefton just for his attitude.
After the career-saving Sunset Blvd. William Holden would do almost anything for Billy, and proved it the next time out by happily playing a heel who doesn't get the girl in Sabrina. In Stalag 17 Holden's Sefton is the perfect Oscar role, a smart-talking loner with a reputation for cynicism, a man who doesn't mind being hated if he's on top. He's got plenty of schemes, like organizing Rat Races as a betting event, and charging his pals for peeks through a telescope at the Russian women's shower room. Sefton is head and shoulders above the rest of the cast, even when he's just hovering in the background.
Some critics of the film point to Wilder's sabotaging his own instincts by going soft with the Sefton character. Mercenary reporter Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) in Ace in the Hole played his rotten character out to the end, but in the third act of Stalag 17 Sefton lets us know he's a nice guy. And several critics have (rather harshly) identified Wilder's "sell-out" moment, when Sefton breaks character (their assessment) while leaving to escape at the end. He ducks out of sight, and then pops back up to give a hearty smile and wave to the comrades he's been sneering at for two hours. There is no hint of condescension -- the gesture is sincere.
Wilder plays it safe elsewhere too. The GI's beat up Sefton but never seriously. They smash his telescope and break open his trunk of goodies, but they don't steal Sefton's property, even though they're convinced he's the dirty snitch. Uncle Sam's soldiers wouldn't do things like that, you know.
The rest of the players are fairly colorless. Don Taylor is a wealthy flier passing through; Sefton resents officers and rich boys so they clash immediately. Richard Erdman is solid as the group leader. "Chipmunks" creator Ross Bagdasarian is seen singing, but gets no credit. Savant thinks that Billy Wilder is the most consistently funny and entertaining writer-director in Hollywood but Stalag 17 has never been a favorite. Unlike most of his pictures, there aren't a great many new things to be discovered on repeat viewings.
Paramount's Special Collector's Edition of Stalag 17 is an extremely clean and well-defined transfer of this flat (1953) B&W show. Sparkhill has assembled two entertaining featurettes and a commentary utilizing actors Richard Erdman, Gil Stratton and Wilder's co-writer Donald Bevan. One featurette covers the filming in amusing detail and the second tells the real story of Stalag 17B. When the Russians approached, the Germans emptied the camp and marched the prisoners West, hoping to make contact with American troops first. A photo gallery is included as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Stalag 17 rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Commentary by actors Richard Erdman and Gil Stratton and co-playwright Donald Bevan, Featurettes Stalag 17: From Reality to Screen, The Real Heroes of Stalag XVIIB, Photo Gallery
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 23, 2006
1. Savant is corrected, or at least modified, once again, this time by reviewer Dick Dinman, 6.24.06: Hey Glenn, Minor correction. Love in the Afternoon is based on a 30's play called Arianne which (I think) was made into a film in the same era starring Elisabeth Bergner. Since Some Like it Hot was based on a 30's German movie the possibility exists that The Apartment may have been Wilder's first truly original film since Ace in the Hole. Cheers, D.D. DICK DINMAN
Savant: Um, let's change my reference to 'original' work, to "work not based on current hit Broadway plays ..." GE