Wednesday 17 February 2010

Stalag 17 (1953)

Director: Billy Wilder
Actors: William Holden, Don Taylor and Otto Preminger
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

I hadn't the faintest idea what to expect from Stalag 17. It sounded pretty tough with a title like that and it had an Academy Award under its belt, so I thought it was most likely to be some hard as nails Nazi prison camp drama. Certainly the opening shot of a Nazi soldier walking his guard dog between twin barbed wire fences reinforced that. It's in black and white and we soon discover that the 630 American airmen in this particular part of this particular stalag are all sergeants, so they're hardly going to be treated with the courtesy that the officers got in The Great Escape. It begins with an escape too, Manfredi and Johnson trying it on the longest night of the year. It's the week before Christmas in 1944 so my granddad had a few days left to live but Manfredi and Johnson don't have that much because the Nazis are waiting for them with machine guns.

Well, how wrong could I be? It turns out to be a drama with plenty of comedy that seems like the chief inspiration for Hogan's Heroes. Apparently a court case proved otherwise but I don't believe that in the slightest. For a start there's a Sgt Schultz in both and he's not far off being the same character. I'm sure the film M*A*S*H picked up a few ideas here too about how people use comedy to relieve the tension in a nasty environment and pretty much anyone else who wanted to lighten a war story too. It's fifties humour, so it's real hit and miss stuff. 'Sprechen sie Deutsch?' Shapiro asks Sgt Schultz. 'Then droppen sie dead!' No, this isn't exactly the height of intellectual wit, but then to be fair it's a bunch of sergeants in a prison camp. What do you expect? The only thing not realistic is the PG language.

At least I wasn't alone in my ignorance. Leading man William Holden had seen half of the source play on Broadway but he walked out before the end of the first act. He certainly didn't want the lead role of Sgt J J Sefton, who he saw as a selfish and cynical character without much interest at all, but the studio didn't give him a choice. Only after he was stuck with the part and he read the whole script did he realise what a versatile role it really was and it went on to win him his only Oscar. His acceptance speech was apparently the shortest in Academy history up until that point, though it was hardly his choice. The broadcast was running long so he only had time for two words. 'Thank you,' was all he said, but he took out a personal ad in the trade papers to thank everyone he didn't get the opportunity to thank on the night.

The real Stalag 17B was in Austria and two of the prisoners of war who reluctantly spent some time there were Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski. They turned their experiences into a play, which ran for 472 performances on Broadway and became this film. Trzcinski even made a cameo appearance, a very touching one as a soldier who gets a letter from his wife to say she's mysteriously found a baby on her doorstep, one that looks like her. 'I believe it,' may just be his only other line, but we hear it a lot because he's trying to convince himself. It's these little things that are most heartfelt. Shapiro, one of the barracks clowns, gets more letters than anyone else but they're all from a finance company requesting payments on his Plymouth. There's even one for Joey from his dad, asking if he's going to go back to law school when he gets home. Unfortunately Joey hasn't been quite all there since his colleagues were killed in front of his eyes.

The narrator is a prisoner called Cookie, played by Gil Stratton. He laments the fact that there were never any films about POWs, although I've seen a few that predate both this and the war, and then proceeds to tell his own story about a spy in Stalag 17. It's been obvious that there's a spy from moment one, given that the Germans were waiting for Manfredi and Johnson and know every other thing that happens without any apparent methodology. Sefton's problem is that there's only one apparent candidate for stool pigeon and it's him, because he's making money off everyone, or what passes for currency in a prisoner of war camp, namely cigarettes and anything else that anyone might conceivably want but generally can't get. He's a real character, albeit as selfish and cynical as Holden believed from the first half of the play that he saw because he's entirely out for number one, only Cookie really benefitting too because he's his assistant.

Sefton is a hustler, a scrounger and an entrepreneur. He brews his own attempt at schnapps from old potato peels and string, he runs horse races every week with rats and even sets up what he calls the Observatory, a telescope that points right at the delousing shack in the Russian women's compound. He has footlockers full of loot and keeps them because he greases the guards with 10% of the take. He even has his own personal bar of soap which doesn't make him popular but what really does it is the stack of cigarettes he makes betting against Manfredi and Johnson. That's a harsh bet to make, however well he was playing the odds, and from the moment he wins those cigarettes nobody really believes the stoolie is anyone other than Sefton.

He's certainly not the only unpopular character but all the rest are Germans and we get to know two of them. Otto Preminger plays the Nazi Colonel in charge of the camp, Col von Scherbach, even though he was actually Jewish, and he's more than happy to crack inappropriate jokes while those two failed escapees lie dead in the mud. Preminger relishes his role as the bad guy without ever becoming a stereotypical villain, although he does wear rather stereotypical boots which he keeps in pristine condition by having his men lay down boards before him in the mud wherever he goes. Preminger wasn't known as an actor, instead being a highly regarded film director. In 1953, the year he played Col von Scherbach in this film, he also directed William Holden in The Moon is Blue, though it's remembered more nowadays for David Niven. He'd been Oscar nominated himself as Best Director for Laura almost a decade earlier and he had two more nominations to come, for Anatomy of a Murder and The Cardinal.

Backing him up as the guard assigned to barracks four is Sgt Johann Sebastian Schultz, in the able form of Sig Ruman, who had served in the German army in the First but not the Second World War. He was a regular for both Ernst Lubitsch and with the Marx Brothers, which highlights his versatile talent for comedy. He's a little brighter than the equivalent Sgt Schultz in Hogan's Heroes though he doesn't seem to be most of the time, because he pretends friendship and jokes along with the prisoners as if he was one of them. It's a good role because while he's certainly the enemy he's an infectious one who is easy to sympathise with. When the sergeants in barracks four all put on Hitler moustaches as a gag, he replies, 'Bah! One F├╝hrer is enough!'

Perhaps William Holden's work here is so great because even while I'm sure you won't be surprised to find he isn't the bad guy, he manages to successfully appear to be for most of the film, not a simple enemy but apparently a more complex traitor to his own people. I can see why he didn't want the part after only seeing half the play as it isn't until over halfway through that his character becomes really interesting. Just over an hour in he manages to trade his way over to the Russian women's compound on the very same night that Schultz confiscates their hidden radio, yet another emphatic reminder that there's a spy in the barracks at the very same time that the character most obviously benefitting from something lands a real prize. So he gets the crap beaten out of him by his compatriots and he realises that the only way to get out from under the accusations is to find the real spy. The last third of the movie follows his quest.

I really don't know if Holden should have won that Oscar or not, but he does do a good job. So do the rest of the men in his barracks, played by names like Don Taylor, Peter Graves, Neville Brand, even Robinson Stone who never speaks as Joey, given that his brain turned to mush. It's the clowns that are most obvious, of course, Harry Shapiro and Stanislas Kasava, better known as Animal. Shapiro is played by Harvey Lembeck, probably best known to most as Cpl Barbella in The Phil Silvers Show but to me as the stunningly annoying Eric von Zipper in the Frankie and Annette beach movies of the sixties. 'These Nazis ain't kosher,' he says, as if he doesn't even see the joke. He even dresses up as Betty Grable for Christmas, which certainly gets Animal's attention. Robert Strauss was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as Animal, but like Lembeck he knew the role backwards because he'd come to it from the original Broadway production.

This may well be the funniest serious film ever made, well, after Dr Strangelove of course, and the chief success of the film is really its use of humour to relieve tension, presumably courtesy of both the original writers as well as Edwin Blum and director Billy Wilder, who adapted it into a screenplay. The story is a tough and dramatic one but it's constantly draped with humour so that the characters can alleviate the monotony and depressing nature of their situation. They host pinochle championships, throw horseshoes and race sailboats at the cesspool. Everyone rushes out to see when there are new arrivals in the Russian women's compound. At one point the clowns paint a white line throughout the camp just to get in there and amazingly it works.

This is an excellent film, touching and serious, yet light hearted and funny, hardly surprising to hindsight given that it's a Billy Wilder movie, the man who gave us Some Like It Hot, The Apartment and One, Two, Three. Yet when it was released there was a little more surprise, mostly due to the fact that it was a comedy set in a prisoner of war camp but also because all those great Billy Wilder comedies were still to come. Wilder had made his name through more serious films like Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend and Sunset Boulevard. His previous film was Ace in the Hole aka The Big Carnival which is a biting attack on manipulation by media and his earlier comedies are far less known.

There's a biting attack to be found here, at least behind the scenes. Rumour has it that a Paramount executive wanted to improve the film's chances in West Germany by suggesting to Billy Wilder that he make the guards at Stalag 17 Poles instead of Germans. Wilder, a Polish Jew, though his birthplace was in Austria-Hungary at the time, lost both his mother and his stepfather to the Nazis at Auschwitz. Naturally he refused such a suggestion, probably rather emphatically, and demanded an apology, refusing to extend his contract at Paramount when it proved not to be forthcoming. Perhaps it's more believable that he didn't extend because the studio accountants subtracted the losses of Ace in the Hole from his salary for this film, but who knows. This was Hollywood.

It was William Holden rather than Billy Wilder who stood out to me when I first watched this back in 2004. It wasn't necessarily because of his performance, though a repeat viewing in 2010 underlined how capable that was. It was because he seemed to epitomise what I was trying to achieve by working through the entire IMDb Top 250 in an attempt to give myself a grounding in the history of film by watching what mattered. I'd heard of Holden but I hadn't the faintest idea who he was or what he had done. I saw him in films as a kid but didn't remember anything about him at all. I certainly didn't remotely think of him as one of the greatest names of the screen, if I even thought about him at all. He was just an actor.

Yet the more I travel through the world of film, the more his name comes up. While many others get far longer biographies wherever such things are written, he seems to counter that with his work. He stars in five films in this list, a sizable number given that major names I knew about like Gary Cooper, Bette Davis or Edward G Robinson only managed one each. No less a star than James Cagney didn't make it at all. What's most notable though is the variety of his roles. The other four films of Holden's in the list (Sunset Boulevard, Bridge on the River Kwai, Network and The Wild Bunch) are as utterly different from each other as they are from this: a violent western, a film noir about Hollywood and a modern drama about television ratings. Even the other film set in a POW camp is utterly unlike Stalag 17 and most certainly wasn't a comedy. Add in further acclaimed films like The Towering Inferno, Sabrina and The Bridges at Toko-Ri and you'll see that he was obviously a major and versatile name for a long while indeed.

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