The Flickchart Top 250: 10 left to go
Like Akira Kurosawa, director Billy Wilder has had a seemingly non-stop string of entries in my PopGap watchlists this year. Clearly, I have been woefully negligent in following either director's proflic output. While Kurosawa's best movies excite me cinematically more than do Wilder's, I have fair respect for both. However, one recurring theme over the past few months from which I will welcome a lengthy vacation is "prisoner-of-war camps" and I suspect that Wilder's comedy/drama Stalag 17 suffered a bit in my mind due to fatigues fatigue.
William Holden stars as J.J. Sefton, a raconteur and opportunist whose cynical profiteering irks his fellow inmates of the eponymous German prison camp, but when secrets from within their barracks are consistently leaked to the guards, it becomes clear that there is a spy among them and the unpopular Sefton is suspect #1. The best parts of Stalag 17 surround this intrigue, which is well-plotted and gives Holden an atypically dubious character to embody. However, more than half the film is spent on the usual barracks hijinks, which are largely uninspired despite appealing comic performances from Robert Strauss and Harvey Lembeck. That they steal the film is not to the movie's benefit, making it feel like 90 minutes of Hogan's Heroes with an unusually good B-story. Gil Stratton's mealy-mouthed narration is no great asset, either. Holden's simmering performance, along with those by solid co-stars Don Taylor, Peter Graves, Sig Ruman, Neville Brand, and Richard Erdman, elevate the decent but slight material and almost make it seem more substantial than it is.
Comparing Stalag 17 to the similar movies I've watched for PopGap over the past few months is inescapable, and it clearly owes a debt to Grande Illusion, even going so far as to also cast a famous movie director in the role of the Colonel in charge of the prison (Otto Preminger; Grande Illusion featured Erich Von Stroheim in a similar role). While it doesn't aspire to the same graceful heights as Jean Renoir's WWI classic, Stalag 17 does a far better job establishing its setting and characters than the bloated The Great Escape, which seemed to take the opening minutes of Wilder's movie and expand them into a tediously clean three hours.
In terms of Wilder's filmography, Stalag 17 is comfortably just above average, neither equalling the dark comic punch of Sunset Blvd., The Apartment and Double Indemnity, nor settling into the dull murk of his more forgettable movies.
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