Monday, December 31, 2012

Tonight's Movie: Stalag 17 (1953)

This New Year's Eve I enjoyed a rare triple bill, two films at home and one in a theater.

First up for review is the very last film from my list of 10 Classics for 2012! I successfully accomplished my goal of seeing 10 specific classics for the first time this year, and while I didn't enjoy all the films on the list, I'm glad I saw and became familiar with them firsthand.

STALAG 17 falls in the "didn't enjoy" half of the list. While I liked certain aspects of it, the tedious dumbbell humor just about ruined it for me; I might as well have been watching HOGAN'S HEROES at times -- which is not a compliment, in my view. And, frankly, I didn't find the concentration camp setting easy to watch either.

The movie concerns a group of Americans held in a German prisoner of war camp during WWII. Somehow the Germans always seem to know what is going on in the men's bunkhouse, and after a failed escape attempt by two of the men, suspicion turns to Sgt. J.J. Sefton (William Holden). Sefton wheels and deals for small creature comforts, and the men suspect he may be selling out to the Germans in order to obtain his little luxuries.

The true culprit is eventually revealed as the POWs plot to rescue an officer (Don Taylor) who blew up an enemy army depot and is about to be "disappeared" by the Germans.

Holden, the winner of a Best Actor Oscar, is excellent as the wheeler-dealer who keeps mostly to himself, other than his friendship with his righthand man, "Cookie" (Gil Stratton). The more intelligent sections of the movie, in which Holden's character plays detective, were really interesting; the moment where Sefton watches the light bulb swinging, as a light bulb figuratively turns on in his head, is classic. I also really liked Richard Erdman as the sergeant in command of the group.

Unfortunately, the movie is dominated by Harvey Lembeck and Robert Strauss as two goofball sergeants, and I do not "get" their type of humor at all. Their "comic" scenes went on so long that at times I hit the fast forward button just to get back to William Holden. Strauss was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, and I just can't see it. Humor is a fairly individual thing and according to some film references, these actors are hilarious, so others may well find them enjoyable! Honestly, they bored me silly.

Second-billed Don Taylor arrives well into the film and only has a handful of scenes; I assume he was cast as he could successfully convey the authority and confidence of an officer from a wealthy background, but since I like him it was a bit of a disappointment that his role was so small in proportion to his billing.

The cast includes director Otto Preminger as the camp commandant, Sig Ruman as Sergeant Schulz (who I assume inspired the Sergeant Schulz of HOGAN'S HEROES), plus Peter Graves, Neville Brand, Michael Moore, and Peter Baldwin (GENERAL HOSPITAL). Robert Mitchum's brother John is one of the many POWs.

STALAG 17 was cowritten and directed by Billy Wilder, based on a play -- which, incidentally, was directed by Jose Ferrer. The film runs 120 minutes.

I watched STALAG 17 on a Collector's Edition DVD. Extras include a commentary track with Richard Erdman, Gil Stratton, and one of the original playwrights. The DVD can be rented from Netflix.

STALAG 17 has been shown on TCM in the Essentials series. A re-issue trailer can be seen here.


Blogger dfordoom said...

I have major problems with Billy Wilder's comedies. I find them very heavy-handed and with a nasty undercurrent. I'm a huge admirer of Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard but I haven't enjoyed any of his comedies.

3:59 AM  
Blogger Vienna said...

Thanks for your review. I like this film but there is a problem with some of the humour and the seriousness of the story.
It would probably have worked better for me as a straight drama.
I liked your description of the swinging light bulb and the affect it has on Holden.
William Holden was so lucky that Billy Wilder recognised his talent and cast him in this and Sunset Boulevard.

7:43 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

Fun in a German prisoner of war camp. The concept offends. More than forty years ago I played in a stock production aws James Schuyler Dunbar, Don Taylor's part. I thought at the time it was aa lot of fun but incredibly stupid. Same thing with Hogan's Heroes. Your take is right on, but Lembeck and Strauss are not the culprits.

7:47 AM  
Blogger DKoren said...

This review reminds me of my reaction the first time I saw this film. I loved Holden and the serious parts and didn't get the humor of the rest of it. But on second viewing, a couple years later, I must have mellowed, as I had a different reaction, and really liked the parts of the movie that I had objected to on my first viewing.

Happy New Year!

9:08 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Loved all your thoughts on this.

dfordoom, I love the older comedies that Wilder cowrote but have had trouble with some of his later work; I particularly disliked THE APARTMENT.

Vienna, if it had been a straight drama focusing much more on William Holden I think this film would have worked much better for me. There were elements I admired, just not enough of them.

Barrylane, I tend to agree with you; I've never been able to stand the concept of HOGAN'S HEROES and was surprised this film was so often so close to that show in tone. What fun to know you played Dunbar in a stage production, I love that!

Deb, that's so interesting your opinion changed later; that sometimes happens to me. For instance, I revisited THE AFFAIRS OF DOBIE GILLIS (1953) this year and thought it much better than I had on my first viewing a few years ago.

Best wishes,

4:09 PM  
Blogger dfordoom said...

Laura, I agree on Wilder's early work. When it came to comedy he was a good writer but he lacked the necessary lightness of touch to be a good comedy director. I dislike THE APARTMENT as well. I also dislike THE SEVEN-YEAR ITCH and SOME LIKE IT HOT.

4:57 PM  
Blogger Raquel Stecher said...

This makes me so sad :-(

10:11 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Raquel,

I know! I wish every movie could be a winner for me and especially that I could share my friends' enjoyment of movies they like. I'm finding that especially when it comes to films with humor, reactions can vary wildly.

Fortunately I find things to enjoy in the vast majority of movies I see...and as discussed with Deb there's always the chance a future viewing will bring a different perspective.

Thanks so much for stopping by!

Best wishes,

10:33 AM  

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