Tonight's Saturday Night Cinema is a vastly entertaining comedy-drama directed by the singular creative genius, Billy Wilder, one of my favorites. Wilder balances drama, satire and comedy in this roiling adventure. William Holden won his first and only Best Actor Oscar in this fascinating film in a POW camp.
Bosley Crowther's 1953 NY Times film review:
A cracker jack movie entertainment has been made from "Stalag 17," the play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski that scored on Broadway two years ago. Produced and directed by Billy Wilder for the greater glory of Paramount and played by an all-male cast of experts, sparked by William Holden, Harvey Lembeck and Robert Strauss, this film version of the comedy-drama of American airmen in a German prison camp becomes a humorous, suspenseful, disturbing and rousing pastime on the Astor's screen.
Just like the play before it—which is faithfully followed, by the way—this film shows much more than the rompings of playful fellows that the ads might let you believe. Romping there is aplenty among the bored and restless prisoners battened down in the shabby and cluttered bunkhouse of Barrack 4 in Stalag 17. And the intensity of these rompings, which represent the normal spirits and grim despairs of healthy young men without incentives and without feminine companions, gives vitality to the film.
Conflicts in Camp
But the taut fascination of the offering is not in the comedy and the japes; it is in the unending conflicts among a campful of volatile men. And these conflicts are not confined only to the clashes between prisoners and guards; they extend with particular virulence within the group of supposed countrymen and friends.
As in the play, the tension resides in the knowledge that there is a "stool pigeon" doing his deadly mischief among the prisoners in Barrack 4—a "stoolie" who gives the fatal signal on a valiant endeavor to escape and slips to the guards damaging evidence against a new arrival in the camp. Suspected at first is one fellow who is a shrewd, calculating type—a cool, enterprising "operator"—whom one might naturally look at askance. But, again, the excitement is compounded when it is realized that he is not the man, and when this fellow, for vital self-protection, sets out to find the culprit—and does.
Although Mr. Wilder and his helper in preparing the script, Edwin Blum, have stuck pretty close to the original, they have also done several things that, in this corner's estimation, have considerably improved the play. For one, they have moved into the open of the camp compound for many scenes, achieving not only more color but more excitement in the episodes of escapes. One sequence, in which the two chief comics, Mr. Lembeck and Mr. Strauss, use the ruse of pretending to be painters to get into an adjacent camp, containing Russian women prisoners, is one of the funniest in the film.
But the major achievement of their revisions is in the character Mr. Holden plays—that of the clever "operator"—who becomes a positive and arresting force. Here he is not a pleasant fellow; he is strictly at bat for No. 1. He smokes cigars, scratches matches on other's clothing and is acquisitive right down the line. He takes bets against his own companions and operates a make-shift race track and a whisky still. But he has nerve, ingenuity and a certain valor. Mr. Holden plays him exceedingly well.
Cynical Display of Realism
Indeed, as a consequence of this character, there emerges something in this film that considerably underscores the drama. It is a cynical sort of display of effectiveness in a group dilemma of a selfish philosophy and approach. It isn't pretty, but it is realistic—another comment on the shabbiness of war. It goes with a certain hollow jesting about the Geneva conventions and the Red Cross.
As for the other performers—Mr. Lembeck as a Jewish wisecracker, Mr. Strauss as his oafish pal, Richard Erdman as chief of the barrack, Otto Preminger as warden of the camp, Don Taylor as the new arrival, Sig Ruman as a thick-headed guard, Peter Graves as the barrack security officer and many, many more—they help weave the close and crackling fabric of what is certainly one of this year's most smashing films.
STALAG 17, screen play by Billy Wilder and Edwin Blum, based on the play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski; directed and produced by Mr. Wilder for Paramount Pictures. At the Astor.
Sefton . . . . . William Holden
Lieutenant Dunbar . . . . . Don Taylor
Oberst Von Scherbach . . . . . Otto Preminger
Stosh (Animal) . . . . . Robert Strauss
Harry . . . . . Harvey Lembeck
Hoffy . . . . . Richard Erdman
Price . . . . . Peter Graves
Duke . . . . . Neville Brand
Schulz . . . . . Sig Ruman
Manfredi . . . . . Michael Moore
Johnson . . . . . Peter Baldwin
Joey . . . . . Robinson Stone
Blondie . . . . . Robert Shawley
Marko . . . . . William Pierson
Cookie . . . . . Gil Stratton Jr.
Bagradian . . . . . Jay Lawrence
Geneva Man . . . . . Erwin Kalser
Triz . . . . . Edmund Trzcinski
German Lieutenant . . . . . Harold D. Maresch