Stalag 17 (Blu-ray Review)4 Nov, 2013 By: Mike Clark
Stars William Holden, Don Taylor, Otto Preminger.
Courtesy of its late-1950s Paramount re-issue with A Place in the Sun at a pair of my neighbor theaters, this was either the first or second Billy Wilder picture of my moviegoing experience, a viewing that came either shortly before or after I caught the then-current Witness for the Prosecution at a drive-in with Vincente Minnelli’s Designing Woman (those were the days). At age 11 or 12, my childhood best friend Jim Freeman and I regarded stage-born Stalag as the funniest movie we’d ever seen, and all these decades later, its new Blu-ray gave me at least 25 out-loud laughs, with several absolutely to the point of tears.
Several of the heartiest spring from the scenes in which a brash human message-board (William Pierson) bounds into the barracks to deliver mail and official announcements — including one touting an imminent social mixer where all men from Texas are requested to meet behind the latrine (a so-called event that rates a cascade of boos). There’s also a horse race involving mice in which one of the favorites begins chasing his tail down the homestretch — plus a lot of magnificent shtick between Harvey Lembeck (later a regular on TV’s classic army-backdropped “The Phil Silvers Show”) and Oscar-nominated Robert Strauss as the aptly named “Animal.” Many years later, coming out of an AFI Theater showing of Stalag that I had programmed, my ex-wife asked, “Do you realize that you and the 6-year-old sitting on the other side of me were laughing at exactly the same things?”
The worst thing you can say about the movie is that it probably made possible TV’s similarly themed but irresponsibly slapstick-ish “Hogan’s Heroes,” one of the many admittedly popular blights that CBS foisted upon the culture during James T. Aubrey’s rube-oriented regime. But the humor in Jewish Wilder’s much savvier treatment emanates from human misery, and the movie sets up its rules by shrewdly opening with the German machine-gun massacre of two escaping American POWs. Their foiling has been abetted by an unknown barracks stool pigeon assumed by the other men to be the character lead William Holden plays, an “operator” with no qualms about trading cigarettes and nylons to their captors that enable him to enjoy a higher quality of life than his fellow prisoners (e.g. a fresh egg and an evening with a female Russian prisoner in another barracks).
Holden took the ’53 best actor Oscar for what is sometimes said to have been a consolation award after having missed merited top honors for Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, and it’s a part that Kirk Douglas has said he turned down for his biggest career regret, given that he never got his own Oscar. Douglas had starred just before in Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, a horrible flop at the time despite the fact that not a few movie folk now regard it as Wilder’s greatest film. So perhaps the actor was commercially gun-shy as well, but this is a Douglas kind of role through and through, taking nothing away from Holden. The movie is an ensemble acting piece second to none, but the one other standout is Otto Preminger’s brilliantly cast turn as the camp commandant — who in the movie’s most spot-on Wilder-like bit, has a lackey dress him in a pair of heels just so that he (Preminger) can audibly click his heels when talking on the phone to a superior.
Carried over form the standard DVD are a commentary by original playwright Donald Bevan (who co-wrote with Edward Trzcinski) and supporting actors Richard Erdman and Gil Stratton — along with roughly half-hour documentaries on the movie’s production and on real-life POWs. To this extent, the Blu-ray is merely an upgrade, but I do think Ernest Laszlo’s black-and-white cinematography has never gotten full due — completely mastering, as it does, stage roots (though the screenplay was largely rewritten by Wilder and Edwin Blum) set in cramped headquarters. Wilder’s Oscar-nominated direction is also first-rate in the same way; note its staging of the Christmas party and the barracks detail it captures as male partners softly jitterbug across the frame. And if there’s a two-hour package that moves any faster, it doesn’t come immediately to mind — though up through 1972’s appallingly underrated Avanti!, pacing was a slam-dunk Wilder hallmark.