4 August 2004 | NoArrow
A great film headed by a classic director and strong star William Holden
William Holden is always in the shadows in `Stalag 17', he's always behind the characters or off to the side of the camera. You see, despite Holden's character Sgt. J.J. Sefton being the film's main character, he is only seen through the eyes of his fellow POWs, rarely ever alone. When they start to think he's the spy so do we. Oh, sure, we know he isn't the rat (movies don't do things like that), but since the story is told by all of the POWs who think Sefton is the rat, we start to think like them too. That is the mastery of Billy Wilder's `Stalag 17', it takes the film's most interesting character and sets him apart from the rest for most of the film, letting us learn about him as the characters do.
The story focuses on a group of POWs living in the American section of Stalag 17, supposedly the 's best POW camp. Among them are barracks chief Hoffy (Richard Erdman), Price (Peter Graves), Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck) and Animal Casava (Robert Strauss). They all have their own special job when their fellow prisoners try to escape, Price, for instance, is security'. The film starts when two prisoners try to escape the barracks. Everyone inside is enthused, thinking the two will make it very far, except Sefton, who bets precious cigarettes that they wont make it past the outer forest. When he turns out to be right the POWs start thinking there's a rat and that rat is Sefton. And as the first hour passes we think so too, it's only logical, Sefton has any luxuries because of his deals with the s.
The POWs start to bully Sefton, and once they beat him to a pulp he decides to discover who the real rat is (at this point, of course, we know he is ). His investigation isn't handled with dialogue though, we get this by seeing his facial expressions and his lurking in the shadows of the barracks.
So, what starts as a light, `gung-ho' type war movie (there's lots of comedy in the first hour) turns into a dark, sort of gritty thriller with a twist that left me with my mouth open. I wont reveal it, but I'll just say that Sefton smartly solves the mystery and redeems himself to the rest of the barracks (I didn't spoil anything, come on, it's expected).
As I said, there's lots of comedy in the first hour and some in the second, mostly from Strauss and Lembeck's characters. Some of the comedy is key in showing how these characters cope with their nearly hopeless situation, handled well by Wilder and the actors (Strauss' performance even gained him an Oscar nomination) but some of it just seems tacked on and out of place, like when a drunken Strauss thinks that Lembeck is a hell.
But that is a small qualm, and the rest of the film is excellent. The direction and writing are great in showing us a war film, a mystery, a thriller and a dark comedy all at once. I'd have to say I like the acting the most though, Holden (who won a leading Oscar for his work in this) is suave and charming, as well as mischievous and cynical, he creates a real `cool' character without trying too. And the rest of the cast - Graves, Otto Preminger - are admirable as well. The POWs aren't clichés or caricatures, they're all their own separate people.
`Stalag 17' is great as a war movie, a mystery, a thriller and a dark comedy. It's a classic film, for all who appreciate good cinema, 8.5/10.