It's a dreary Christmas 1944 for the American POWs in Stalag 17. For the men in Barracks 4, all sergeants, have to deal with a grave problem - there seems to be a security leak. The Germans always seem to be forewarned about escapes and in the most recent attempt the two men, Manfredi and Johnson, walked straight into a trap and were killed. For some in Barracks 4, especially the loud-mouthed Duke, the leaker is obvious: J.J. Sefton, a wheeler-dealer who doesn't hesitate to trade with the guards and who has acquired goods and privileges that no other prisoner seems to have. Sefton denies giving the Germans any information and makes it quite clear that he has no intention of ever trying to escape. He plans to ride out the war in what little comfort he can arrange, but it doesn't extend to spying for the Germans. As tensions mount and a mob mentality takes root, it becomes obvious that Sefton will have to find the real snitch if he is to have any peace and avoid the beatings Duke and ... Written by
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If I ever run into any of you bums on a street corner, just let's pretend we've never met before.
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Billy Wilder's Stalag 17 relies on folds of comedy and a cynical attitude to elevate a story that seems out of a crime novel. Here we have a cast of characters, and the undercurrent is 'who's the rat?' in a bunker as the secrets shuffled around (i.e. that there's a tunnel for escape) and the Germans know right away. There's fun in that, and in being able to 2nd guess who the informant really is- at one point I thought the old adage "it's the quiet ones you got to watch" would come forward- but Wilder is brilliant at transforming this as some solid suspense and dramatic tension while ALSO making a really snappy (sometimes) dark comedy. It's a movie about personality, despite the plot being somewhat important, and with the actors themselves delivering a lot for the characters' sakes.
William Holden is the first given attribute as the star, playing the sort who, for a conventional movie-goer audience, seems easy to peg: too full of himself, sneaky, has the motive to be the informant. But as the layers come into focus, he's more than meets the eye, and Holden (against his better instincts, as he didn't want the role originally) fills it in with his subtle swagger and great sarcastic touch carried over from Sunset Blvd. Then there's Otto Premminger, a big surprise as he is mostly known as a director, as the Commandant, taking up and stealing every scene he's in (only Erich von Stroheim in Grand Illusion beats him out as tour-de-force Commandants). Then there's supporting work from the desperate 'clowns' (Robert Strauss's Betty Grable obsessed Animal and Harvey Lembeck's Shapiro), and the cool Don Talyer in a turn as Dunbar. They're all at their best.
While it almost appears to be more entertaining than it perhaps should- considering, as Cookie's opening narration says, movies about the army have been glamorized and this story is different- it's kind of like the Hollywood 50s answer to something like A Man Escaped. Bresson's film is cold and detached and immediate in dramatic impact, while Stalag 17 wants to be a big hit. There's a lot of humor, some unexpected, some that are meant to be big laughs (i.e. Animal and Shapiro's scheme to get into the Russian prison), and they all connect. It's simply a really entertaining movie that has transcended its period, thanks to Wilder's faith in (and more than likely proponent of) an ironic, witty sensibility to otherwise dark and gloomy cinematic terrain.
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