In Our Opinion

IT’S A BILLY WILDER FILM

By • Sep 10th, 2012 •

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In NYC in 1965 I remember tuning in to “CBS Saturday Night at the Movies.” I didn’t know what the film would be that week, but the previews for STALAG 17 had a huge hand that reached out from inside the TV screen and grabbed onto my pajama lapel. I had never heard the word ‘stalag,’ despite the fact that my father was a highly decorated soldier with a Purple Heart and Bronze Star, having served in the 45th Infantry, and that Doctor Edward (“Father of the H-Bomb”) Teller was both a family friend and, with his wife and daughter, the upstairs tenant in my father’s two-family home.

The film opens up at Christmas time (and was broadcast at Christmas time). The setting is a dismal American POW camp in Germany in 1944 run by a Commandant with obvious low self-esteem named von Scherbach, played by movie director Otto Preminger, who’s quite good in the role. William Holden is Sergeant J.J. Sefton, considered a heel and “collaborator” by his fellow Americans. Information is being passed to von Scherbach which, in the opening, results in essentially a double “execution” of Sergeants Manfredi and Johnson who, having sought egress through the barracks trap door, crawl right into a hail of Nazi bullets.

Sefton had made “book they’d never get out of the compound” with cigarettes as the usual gambling currency. Naturally he wins. As the story progresses Sefton is dubbed “Trader Horn” by Duke, the barracks tough Guy (played by real-life World War II hero [4th most decorated] Neville Brand). Throughout the story, Sefton more than admits to “trading with the enemy” for better conditions, and a series of loose information continues to make it to von Scherbach with severe consequences to the imprisoned GI’s.

As I was watching this work of movie genius, I KNEW that Sefton was NOT the “Rat”…too obvious. It wasn’t the Shell-Shocked Joey….too contrived. Nor the “barracks clowns” Animal (Robert Strauss) and Harry Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck) whose only mail was from a finance company on his tail about repossessing his Plymouth from some Brooklyn parking spot…too absurd.

Even as a kid, my observational skills were sharpening up, and though I wasn’t quite sure who the informer was, there was something off-kilter about Price (Peter Graves) who was in charge of barracks “security”. At that early age, I learned to be wary of those who make the most noise…or the least! Price, as it turns out was the Informant, a German who lived in the U.S. but returned to “the Fatherland, fixed up with phony dog tags” and let loose amongst American POW’s.

Price, humbled by Sefton and having the Nazi dog snot slapped out of him, tries to make a break for it. The result: Sefton breaks out of the camp using Price as a “decoy” and saves the doomed LT Dunbar (Don Taylor), a Boston “Blue Blood” briefly known to Sefton in officers’ candidate school.

For those who’ve seen STALAG 17, and know that Price was the Planted German, you can have lots of fun studying his character and the methods Wilder used to show us that he was in fact the Guy. I won’t Spoil your fun, but a few hints; Listen to WHAT and HOW Price speaks of the “Leak”, where he sits at times, and how he hates the Phantom American Rat. After Sefton gets a “Blanket Party” by his Fellow G.I.’s, he tells Cookie (Gil Stratton jr., and the movie’s Narrator) that he knows who the Informer is because “he hit the hardest”.

As much as I love STALAG 17,I found some of it a bit stagy, perhaps because it was originally a stage play, and one that William Holden, attending a performance, had walked out on after the first act. He was convinced by the director to be in the film version, and of course having done SUNSET BOULEVARD with Wilder, being won over was a simple task.

Although at times extremely funny, Paramount Pictures’ touting the film strictly as a comedy was incorrect. Most Wilder films in my observation can’t be categorized as Drama, Comedy, Mystery, etc… They are simply Billy Wilder films, and STALAG 17 IS a clear-cut example of that

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