Blu-ray review: Stalag 17

Starring: William Holden, Otto Preminger
Director: Billy Wilder

stalag-17 1At his best, in films like Some Like It Hot and The Apartment, Billy Wilder elevated cinema to such a rare pitch of perfection, it’s amazing other directors didn’t simply give up and go home. Stalag 17 isn’t quite in that class, but it shows Wilder bringing his customary flair to the POW movie genre. The setting is a German prisoner of war camp for American airmen. When some escaping POWs are ambushed by the guards, the men suspect that there’s a “dirty, stinking stoolie” in their midst. Prime suspect – Sergeant Sefton (William Holden), a cynical wheeler-dealer who trades with the Germans and never seems short of creature comforts.

Eschewing the stiff upper lip of British war movies, the early sections of Stalag 17 are noisy and energetic, with a lot of time given over to the antics of barracks clowns Animal (Robert Strauss) and Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck) and Otto Preminger’s OTT camp commandant, all polished boots and Cheshire cat grin. While all this robust knockabout seems to anticipate Sergeant Bilko and MASH, it actually shows Wilder dipping into the past to channel the broad, screwball style of his old idol Ernst Lubitsch, as witness his casting of Lubitsch regular Sig Ruman as comical camp heavy Sergeant Schulz.

The stereotyping of this German character and others as beefy, stupid and obsessed by rules might seem rather lazy and obvious to modern eyes, but to fair the Germans aren’t the real target of the movie, which is more keen to lay into various aspects of the American way of life: Sefton discovers to his cost that capitalist individualism will only get you so far in a wartime situation, while his fellow prisoners display a nasty vigilante streak as their suspicions of him deepen. As the pressure on Sefton mounts and he begins to wonder who the real culprit might be, the earlier high spirits become tinged with irony and the story morphs into a claustrophobic, solidly constructed thriller with an ending that is deceptively cynical. 8/10

The transfer has a slightly granular quality in some scenes, but there are no scratches stalag-17 2or print damage. The evenly lit scenes within the barracks have plenty of detail (the walls are plastered with posters and pin-ups which show up sharply), and crane shots of the prison camp exteriors are also very crisp in pale, wintry greys. The beautifully choreographed scene – probably the most complex set-up in the movie – when the men sing “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” with a disaffected Sefton looking on has a particularly impressive depth of field. 8/10

Oldish but interesting 22-min “making of”, in 4:3 aspect ratio, with contributions from some of the cast and one of the writers. We hear about the hit Broadway show on which the film was based (heavily reworked by Wilder, who was still doing rewrites while shooting was under way) and learn that the director originally wanted Charlton Heston for the role of Sefton. ~ Nicely made 25-min piece on the historical background to the stalags, with archive footage and interviews with veterans, who talk about how – as if the film – the Germans tried all sorts of methods to get information out of them. ~ A 23-min talking head piece with critic Neil Sinyard, who discusses the film in the context of Wilder’s career (it was something of a retrenchment for him after the commercial failure of Ace in the Hole) and examines its themes. ~ Audio com with some of the cast and one of the writers of the original play – a few interesting reminiscences emerge from the old timers between the long silences and the chat about who’s no longer alive and what they died of. 8/10


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