Stalag 17 (1953)
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Billie Wilder was one of the few directors that could tackle any subject - even sticky ones like alcoholism in a time when everybody had some family member or knew someone that was under its spell. Nobody really wanted to talk about it but everybody watched Lost Weekend and got the message.
In the aftermath of WWII, even in the midst of the Korean War, Billy Wilder put out a German prisoner of war camp film that emphasized the comedy that could be found in such a dire setting. This is the film that nobody wanted to back being so close after the war, so Wilder had to make it himself. Once Stalag 17 became a hit, however, everybody wanted to claim a share and it even found its idea pirated and moving to television inspiring the great comedy series Hogan's Heroes.
Those of you who remember The Great Escape (1963) will remember the great assortment of characters included in that bunch of prisoners. One of the meatiest characters is the scrounger or the guy who can get anything - for a price. In that movie it was James Garner; in Stalag 17 it was William Holden who ran the prison camp's black market. Plenty of cigarettes and candy bars available 24/7.
Holden got an Oscar for his performance here, the only one of his career, and some think it is a consolation prize for being passed over a couple years before for Sunset Boulevard - another collaboration with Billy Wilder.
As in most Billy Wilder comedies, this one adapted from a Broadway play, the cast is mostly character actors with Neville Brand, Robert Strauss, Gil Stratton, Harvey Lembeck, and sometimes director Otto Preminger playing the German Camp Commandant. Peter Graves plays one of the larger roles, along with the more important characters like Holden and Preminger.
Our Story: The camp is under observation by a spy. Everything that the prisoners plan to do is reported to the Germans who foil any escape attempts. The story plays out during the first half revealing who this traitor is but then the second half shows how the guy who discovers the spy exposes him. From the beginning the prisoners suspect Holden, who, as the scrounger, has deals going with the Germans all the time and is an obvious suspect. But is he the rat? You'll have to tune in yourself to find out. ;>
As a dialog driven film, lots of the dialog of Stalag 17 is smart alecky as heck and will be attractive to those that like that sort of humor, like your correspondent. ;> I have always enjoyed people that could accurately call a situation with a humorous take and Billy Wilder is one of the guys that can script that sort of dead pan black humor right down to the fingernails.
The Paramount DVD is available in Special Edition that contains two featurettes and a commentary from surviving actors and the playwright Donald Bevan. The two hour running time is a little long for the black and white movie but the comedy and drama is pretty well maintained through the story.
I think anybody who likes WWII movies would like this and fans of Mel Brooks might like to see somebody who can take some funny ideas and actually make a movie out of it, rather than a string of episodes.
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