With William Holden, Otto Preminger, Don Taylor, Robert Strauss, Harvey Lembeck, Richard Erdman, Peter Graves, Neville Brand, Sig Ruman
Directed by Billy Wilder
Black and White
Reviewed by JB

     A film that can be considered the starting point for the "prisoner of war" genre (although Jean Renoir's GRAND ILLUSION approached the subject in 1937), STALAG 17 has some of the trappings of the fifties, including some schticky humor, but is still one of director Billy Wilder's best films.  Like Kurosawa with THE LOWER DEPTHS, Wilder is not daunted by the film's claustrophobic setting, and his fluid camerawork and editing will make you forget that you are watching a movie that takes place, for the most part, on one set.

     The performances, too, go a long way to overcome any feeling of STALAG 17 being a "filmed play", especially William Holden's brilliant turn as a self-centered POW who trades cigarettes and stockings with his German captors for luxuries such as eggs and visits to the women's prison.  When it is discovered that there is a spy in the stalag (prison camp), Holden is naturally the top suspect.  His Oscar-winning performance is nearly equal to the same cynical, I don't give a damn if you like me or not portrayal of the screenwriter in Wilder's earlier SUNSET BOULEVARD, and is all the more impressive when you learn that Holden didn't want to play the part at all but was forced to by Paramount.  

     Comic relief is provided by Robert Strauss and Harvey Lembeck as two wise-cracking POW's who use humor to keep their hold on reality.  Much of the film is a comedy, which Strauss and Lembeck handle with ease.  70 years later, some of the humor may seem a bit over-the-top, but compared with our top movie comics of the day, Strauss and Lembeck are masters of subtlety.  The entire cast is well-chosen, but a special nod should be given to great German character actor Sig Ruman as Schultz, a chummy guard who laughs and kids with his POW's and touts himself as their best friend in the camp but is actually part of the two-man team that smuggles information out of the camp in into the hands of Commandant Scherbach (Otto Preminger), a cold-blooded Nazis so devoted to the cause, he puts his boots on before making a phone call to a superior just so that he can click his heels in respect. 4½ - JB

Billy Wilder     The Stuff You Gotta Watch


MARKO THE MAILMAN: "The Commandant is sending every barracks a little Christmas present: a copy of Mein Kampf... all right, at ease!.... In the words of  Oberst Von Scherbach, ' Now that a German victory is in sight, all American prisoners are to be indoctrinated with the teachings of the Fuhrer' - unquote.  In my own words: (he belches) - unquote!"

Stuff You Gotta Watch
Copyright © 2010 John V. Brennan, John Larrabee