In the opening moments of Stalag 17, the narrator, "Cookie," says he's sick of seeing all those war movies but never one about prisoners of war. What follows is a World War II movie audiences of its day hadn't seen before: no real action, a relatively confined location, a cynical main character, slapstick spiked with black humor, and a decidedly bitter edge to the camaraderie expected of American soldiers confined to a prison camp. The incarcerated soldiers, in fact, were not portrayed as noble patriots but as bored, deprived men subject to pettiness, sexual frustration and quick tempers. The offbeat depiction obviously struck the right note with audiences and the film became a smash hit, earning excellent critical notices and awards.
The loner as hero has long been a tradition in many American films because audiences like to root for underdogs, especially protagonists who appear at first to be cynical and self-interested but who perform heroic acts, revealing a deeper need for solidarity and redemption. Rick (Humphrey Bogart) in Casablanca (1942) is one who immediately comes to mind. As with Rick's tortured love affair with Ilsa, such characters garner more interest and sympathy if they are seen to suffer for their outsider status. Such is the case with Sefton, the part William Holden plays in Stalag 17. Writer-director-producer Billy Wilder plays up Sefton's anti-heroic qualities - his exploitive, easy-going relationship with his German captors and his almost relentless zeal for self-preservation. Then he isolates Sefton within a confined, claustrophobic environment where he is beaten down, creating tension out of the audience's desire to see him vindicated.
Wilder's method is heightened by the Oscar®-winning performance of William Holden. For his first decade or so in Hollywood, Holden played leads that traded largely on his good looks and all-American "regular-guy" appeal. Wilder first exploited the dark underpinnings of this image by casting Holden in Sunset Boulevard (1950). In Sefton he gave Holden an even more cynical role, despite the actor's reluctance to appear so unsympathetic at first. It gave the picture the edge it needed and provided Holden's career with the boost to become a major box office star and one of Hollywood's most sought-after actors for the rest of the decade.
Wilder's other achievement was to bring a relatively uninteresting and visually sparse setting to vivid life through imaginative camera placement and the dynamic choreographing of actors within scenes. This is especially evident in two sequences; the discovery of the true spy's identity and the disclosure of it to the rest of the prisoners in the barracks. Wilder creates suspense and expectation through subtle camera movement that picks up clues and reinforces Holden's ostracism from the others while connecting him to their actions and to his ultimate task of unmasking the traitor. As in the case of his later film Witness for the Prosecution (1957), another stage play adapted for the screen, Wilder took what might have been a monotonous, stagy story and transformed it into one of his most dramatically compelling films.
In addition to Holden's matchless performance, Stalag 17 is distinguished by its stellar supporting cast, in particular Robert Strauss (from the original stage play) as Animal (he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar®) and Otto Preminger as the sardonic prison commandant. Though more famous as a director, Preminger is as menacing in this rare acting role as he was said to be in person on his own movie sets. Notorious within the film industry for his often cruel treatment of actors, it seems only fitting that Preminger would willingly agree to play a sadistic authority figure. He attacks his role with a contained but obvious glee. Preminger, however, wasn't the only director Wilder would cast for a film and in the case of Erich von Stroheim, Wilder hired him twice as an actor - for the major role of Field Marshal Rommel in Five Graves to Cairo (1943) and as a former-director-turned-valet for a silent screen star in Sunset Boulevard.
Director: Billy Wilder
Producer: Billy Wilder
Screenplay: Billy Wilder & Edwin Blum, based on the play by Donald Bevan & Edmund Trzcinski
Cinematography: Ernest Laszlo
Editing: George Tomasini
Art Direction: Franz Bachelin, Hal Pereira
Original Music: Franz Waxman
Cast: William Holden (Sefton), Don Taylor (Dunbar), Otto Preminger (Col. Von Scherbach), Robert Strauss (Animal), Harvey Lembeck (Shapiro), Peter Graves (Price), Sig Ruman (Schulz).
by Rob Nixon