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Billy Wilder is one of the greatest writer/directors of his generation, making numerous classic movies from the 1940s to the 1960s and having two Oscar wins for Best Director to his name. One of his award-winning movies, Stalag 17, is now being re-released by Eureka Entertainment as a part of their Masters of Cinema Collection.
In a German prisoner-of-war camp in 1944, two American airmen are killed when they try to escape. The prisoner leadership believe there is a spy in the ranks and the prime suspects is J.J. Sefton (William Holden), the resident cynic and trader in the camp. As the Americans turn on Sefton, he sets out to discover who the real spy is before he costs any more lives.
Stalag 17 was based on a play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski and the main elements that shows its origins are in its setting, mostly in the barracks of Hut B and having highly memorable, recognizable characters. Holden won an Oscar for Best Actor as Sefton, a role he did not even want because he found the role too unsympathetic; he only took the role because Paramount forced him. He is a true anti-hero, someone who is selfish, and opportunist who looks to make the best out of any situation, and a pure mercenary. Holden plays Sefton as a realist, only willing to take part in events if there is an advantage for him: but he is still cool and confident under pressure and oozes a suave charisma.
Around Holden is an excellent cast and the characters are notable, showcasing the relationships between them, regardless of screen time. There is Duke (Neville Brand) who is the most hostile to Sefton and his antics, Harry and Animal (Harvey Lembeck and Robert Strauss) who are the comic relief and the mentally scarred, mute Joey (Robinson Stone) – and that is just a fraction of the case. Within the German ranks are Feldwebel Schulz (Sig Ruman) who has a jokey relationship to some of the Americans despite the battle of wits going on and legendary director Otto Preminger playing the kommandent of the camp seeking glory and respect from the German High Command, with Wilder adding the touch of him putting on his boots so he can speak to Berlin.
Stalag 17 is sometimes classified as a comedy, but at its center it is a drama and mystery. The central plot is treated with utmost severity, having life-or-death stakes and, finding out who the spy is not a source for laughs. The plot is told is in two halves: the first is Sefton figuring out who the traitor is and the second is proving who he is, and stopping him from causing any more damage. Wilder’s direction was brilliant at adding to the tension, using subtle, slight camera movements to highlight small changes to the environment, clues of communication between the spy and his handlers. One of the best scenes is when the spy is revealed to the audience, the camera focusing on him as all the Americans sing ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’.
The comedy element is on the side of the plot: most of it coming from Animal and Harry, whether it is their attempts to go into the neighboring camp of Russian ladies, Animal’s obsession with Betty Grable and their general banter with each other and other characters like the aforementioned Schulz. Other comedic moments include Sefton’s enterprises within the camp, a scene mocking of the Führer and a dancing sequence. Most of the comedy is genuinely funny and is successful in lightening the mood without being jarring or distracting from the serious nature of wider story. The humor has a screwball comedy story, resulting from sexcapades, though other vices also provide humor. Despite Animal and Harry being comic relief, they still have their part to play in the action and not bumbling buffoons.
Wilder direction is truly excellent, ensuring a fast pace to the events and manages the delicate balance between the drama and comedy. His skills in both genres are in full force, showing his strength as a director, providing physical comedy, adding tension as the Americans wait for the outcome of their actions and highlights the various character relationships and personalities. Wilder shows that the life as a PoW was unpleasant, with poor food and living conditions, stuck in a muddy environment, yet the men’s comradery gets them through the war. The use of external scenes, events in the courtyard and the kommandent’s office expands the movie from its stage origins.
There are small touches that add to the world and characters in Stalag 17. While the Americans are men fairly young or middle aged, their guards are older men or men too unfit to fight on the frontline. There are glances at Joey during the movie suggesting he might be more aware of his surrounding, then he appears and there is excellent framing throughout. There are scenes that end up being similar to iconic moments in later movies like Spartacus, The Great Escape and Full Metal Jacket.
There have been many great prisoner-of-war movies over the years and Stalag 17 stands as one of the best. Wilder showed his amazing abilities as a filmmaker, telling an engaging story with the occasional story vignettes, memorable characters and blending his brand of comedy and drama.
The Blu-ray re-releases comes with two documentaries, one about the production and filming of the movie, having interviews with surviving cast moments and playwright Donald Bevan. The other is a documentary about the real experience of PoWs, including Bevan. Also on the disc is commentary with Bevan and actors Richard Edrman and Gil Stratton and an interview with Professor Neil Sinyard from the University of Hull, analysing the movie. As usual from Eureka Entertainment the re-release comes with an in depth 36 page booklet.