AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY: NOW, from EUREKA ENTERTAINMENT
RUNNING TIME: 120 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Stalag 17 is a German prisoner-of-war camp situated somewhere along the Danube River. Amongst its many captives are 640 American airmen. On “the longest night of the year” two prisoners try to escape through a tunnel but are shot by waiting guards when they emerge outside the barbed wire fence. The other prisoners conclude that one of their own must have told the Germans, and suspicion falls on J. J. Sefton, an enterprising cynic who barters openly with the German guards for eggs, silk stockings, blankets and other luxuries, and organises various other profitable ventures, though of course he denies being a traitor….
Double Indemnity. Ace In The Hole. The Lost Weekend. Sunset Boulevard. The Apartment. Some Like It Hot. The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes. Even though he became largely associated with caustic comedies in the second half of his lengthy career, Billy Wilder made so many great movies in so many different genres, while they still unmistakeably come from the same man. Stalag 17 is not quite a film I would place up there with those pictures I’ve just mentioned, but with a director like Wilder even a slightly lesser effort is of considerable quality. Not a film I’d seen before, it’s actually quite an odd movie and one that in lesser hands may not have worked at all. It’s a World War 2 prison film, but one with a fair bit of levity. Even though most of us have probably seen Life Is Beautiful, even now it seems rather strange and even a bit distasteful to put a light tone and humour into a story of this kind, though life does go on even under the conditions of being prisoners of war, and people need to laugh and enjoy their day to day existence as much as they can. While the horror of the Nazi concentration camps can never be denied, perhaps the attitude of the prisoners is quite believable in this film? Stalag 17 mixes humour with a mystery and typical prison movie tension and fear. Perhaps it shouldn’t really work, but that’s Billy, whose mother and stepfather had actually died in concentration camps, for you.
The film was adapted by Wilder and Edwin Blum from the Broadway play of the same name by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski which was based on their experiences as prisoners in Stalag [“stalag” translating as “prison” in German] 17B in Austria. Two of the actors in the film Robert Strauss and Harvey Lembeck reprised their stage roles. Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas [who later stated he badly regretted his decision, and I feel would have been perfect] both turned down the role of Sefton, and even William Holden refused the part because it wasn’t very sympathetic, but Paramount forced him to take it. The script was rewritten quite a bit by Wilder and Blum, who would routinely hand the cast new pages on the day of shooting, and the film was shot in chronological order. Many cast members didn’t even know the identity of the informant until the last three days of shooting. It was shot in the studio but also at a California ranch where it had been raining continually and was therefore very muddy. Wilder fell out with Paramount, causing him to leave the studio, over various issues, from the studio wanting the camp guards to be Polish [so the film would play better in Germany], to the money that Wilder’s previous film Ace In The Hole had lost being subtracted from his fee, to Paramount not even releasing it for a year thinking the subject matter wasn’t commercial. The film ended up being one of Wilder’s biggest hits. The authors of Stalag 17 sued the creators of the TV series Hogan’s Heroes  for plagiarism, the case being closed with an undisclosed settlement.
The story is narrated, from time to time, by Harvey “Cookie” Cook. His words open the film which starts off by depicting an attempted prison escape. There’s a huge amount of suspense leading up to the action and the crawling through tunnels and dashing from building to building is extremely tense. Even though we’ve only just met these people, we are just as invested in them succeeding as are the Americans in the camp, and are therefore shocked when the guards are waiting for them at the other end and they are shot. There’s a quietly powerful moment when the men are ordered to stand outside and the camera pans along a line of them as each one draws the attention of the person next to him to the two dead bodies in the yard. After this though the tone lightens in a manner some may deem unsuitable, though there remains a constant edge to the proceedings, because the traitor in the midst of the American prisoners is constantly passing information to the Germans about what they are up to. Everyone thinks that Sefton is the guy, and he’s not a very nice chap with his wisecracks, seemingly blasé attitude to things, and unashamed bargaining with Germans to get favours, even if we know he’s like this because of the experiences he’s had. William Holden’s constantly scamming character in this film reminded me of Sgt. Bilko and I think may have influenced Phil Silvers. We wonder just as much as the viewer if Sefton is the traitor or not, and even enjoy the sight of him being beaten up. When the identity is eventually revealed to the viewer[I’m not going to reveal it], only one person in the film knows it, and the suspense really becomes very strong.
In between all this tense stuff is a lot of fun and even merriment. At the centre of much of it are Stanislas “Animal” Kuzawa and Harry “Sugar Lips” Shapiro. Kuzawa is infatuated with Betty Grable, and becomes depressed when he learns she has married someone else, while Shapiro gets six letters at mail call and makes Animal think they are from women. When Kuzawa sees a finance company letterhead, Shapiro admits they repossessed his car. The relationship between the two climaxes with Kuzawa mistaking Shapiro for Grable [don’t ask], though their funniest moment is when they head for the Russian female compound armed only with some paint. Overall the goofiness can be summed up by when the Americans all put on fake Hitler moustaches as they pretend to digest Mein Kampf – poking fun at what some might say isn’t funny at all. Even one of the German officers is a jovial figure of fun who wants to be the “friend” of all the prisoners, but contrasted with him is the Commandant, played by Otto Preminger, another director whom many who had been directed by him felt was entirely suitable for his role. He’s a domineering tyrant but also an eccentric who puts on his riding boots just so it can be heard when he’s making a telephone call to Berlin. One of the things that is so fun about this film is that every character has little quirks.
The actual horror of war is hinted at by the character of Joey, who is shellshocked and never says a word, just plays his ocharina. Wilder’s cynicism about us humans often tended to get the better of him but there are poignant little moments dotted throughout Stalag 17 like a precursor of the famous “I am Spartacus” scene when someone throws something in a puddle and all the prisoners own up to it. The disparate shifting in tone only occasionally veers a little off balance, and the main thought you’re left with is of a bunch of men making to cope with the dreadful circumstances they’re in, and for some, though not all, of them, it’s being humorous. Wilder was famously contemptuous of films where the direction drew attention to itself, but in the 40’s and 50’s at least, he did pay a lot of attention to look. More than half of Stalag 17 takes place in one building and Wilder increases the feeling of claustrophobia by often having lots of characters bunched together in shots, while, so the proceedings, which after all are based on a stage play, don’t seem too static, cinematographer Ernest Laszlo gives us rather more than the usual tracking shots, the camera often gliding around gracefully.
Holden’s Oscar-winning performance remains excellent to modern eyes, partly because it’s such a difficult role to play, being both sympathetic and unsympathetic, but then pretty much every part in the film is well played. Franz Waxman’s score is mostly restricted to drum rolls and the song When Johnny Came Marching Home. Full of rich detail, clever writing and somehow managing to be laugh-out-loud funny one moment and be grim the next [though I don’t really thinks it’s disrespectful – people’s deaths, for example, are not dealt with lightly], Stalag 17 may not quite be prime Wilder to this critic, but it’s still a riveting and often surprising watch that few filmmakers would be able to pull off nearly as well.
Eureka Entertainment’s Blu-ray release of Stalag 17 perfectly replicates the look of a 1953 film while being rich in detail and texture and having just the right level of grain. It retains the commentary by two actors who were in the film, plus the two featurettes, that were on the 2006 DVD, but adds a lengthy interview with film expert Neil Sinyard about the film, plus the usual extensive Eureka liner notes booklet.
* Gorgeous 1080p presentation of the film on Blu-ray
* Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing New video interview with film scholar Neil Sinyard
* Two featurettes Stalag 17: From reality to screen & The real heroes of Stalag 17
* Feature length commentary by actors Richard Erdman & Gil Stratton and co-playwright Donald Bevan 36-page booklet containing an essay, interview material, and rare archival imagery