Paramount // 1952 // 120 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // December 4th, 2000
The semi-funny version of Schindler's List.
Billy Wilder, director of such acclaimed classics as Sunset Blvd. and The Apartment, brings Donald Bevan's acclaimed play Stalag 17 to the screen with a top notch cast (including William Holden, Peter Graves and Otto Preminger) in a comedy/drama about WWII prisoners trying to survive in a German war camp. A hit when it was released in 1952, Stalag 17 has been released on DVD by Paramount in a bare bones version.
In a WWII German P.O.W. camp lives a group of American prisoners that are the nuttiest batch of inmates this side of knockwurst. The barracks camp is Stalag 17, and the prisoners are under the thumb of the their supervisor, Oberst Von Scherbach (Otto Preminger, Mr. Freeze on the '60s TV series "Batman"). The band of misfits includes every type of personality to come down the drain; there's Duke (Neville Brand) the hot-headed lug, Cookie (Gil Stratton) our narrator, Price (a very young Peter Graves) the security officer for the barracks, "Animal" (Robert Strauss) the comedic lunkhead, Sefton (Oscar winner William Holden), a guy who's not afraid to make some deals with the Germans for a little comfort. Along the way we meet other prisoners that are wacky, tough guys or goof-offs (hey, this is a Billy Wilder film).
In Stalag 17 the inmates try to live a somewhat comfortable life, all the while trying to make plans to escape or get information about how the war is turning out. They have a few hidden amenities of home (such as a radio, a alcohol distiller, et cetera), and at least Von Scherbach has a sense of humor ("Why did the yon stratchbok cross the road? To get to other scniztelfled!" Har har har!).
Cookie, our narrator, lets us know that it's a few weeks before Christmas and the barracks realize that there is a spy in their midst. Someone keeps informing the Germans about escape plans, contraband and other secret things only the Americans know. But who is it? Sefton, because of his trading with the Nazis, is spotted out as the stoolie. But have the men fingered the right guy?
Stalag 17 is by far one of Wilder's best films. He tends to work with excellent material and casts, and this film is no different. From Jack Lemmon in The Apartment to Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot, Wilder is able to pull off big laughs and high drama in whatever he does.
The script is fast moving and finds humor in a topic that, by rule, is generally not that funny (Nazi POW camps). Much of the dialogue is sharp wit and crisp writing. Wilder is good at making you feel how tough it would be at a camp such as this (maybe not the full extent, but enough to make you glad you live in the age you do). His direction and writing (along with co-writer Edwin Blum) are masterful and show why he is considered one of the best filmmakers of our time. The script keeps you guessing at who will turn out to be the liar of the group, and laughing as you do.
Performances in Stalag 17 are equally as good, if not better (putting aside some general '50s overacting...we'll let that slide). William Holden won the Academy Award for his portrayal of Sefton, and with good reason. Sefton is a tough as nails sergeant determined to find out who the dissenter is among the barracks. I'm not fully aware of most of Holden's work, but here he shows great acting chops with the role he's given. Otto Preminger does a great job at playing Oberst Von Scherbach, the barracks resident hard guy with a sense of humor. He gives what should be a typical Nazi soldier some depth and, dare I say, warmth. The rest of the cast is splendid as well, doing wonders with a great script.
Stalag 17 is shown in a standard full frame presentation. I looked around but couldn't find any information on if this was the original way this was shown in theaters. I am guessing that this full frame version preserves the aspect ratio, as this was out in the early 1950s. The picture looks overall crisp and clear, with only the slightest grain coming up (but nothing that will hinder your enjoyment of the film). Being this is from 1952, I'd say that the print is in great shape and well maintained by Paramount.
Audio is Dolby Digital mono, and is passable. This is generally a dialogue driven film, so the need for surround sound or anything of that nature minimal. The dialogue is clear with sound effects and music being at the right levels. A fine mix, but nothing spectacular.
As for extras, Paramount has stumped us again. No trailers, no nothing. Oh, we get INTERACTIVE MENUS. Wow! Thanks Paramount, oh movie gods of all that is good, we praise your holy name for this bountiful plethora of extras you have given us! That was sarcasm, for those of you that were paying attention.
If it seems that I am drooling over Stalag 17 a bit, it's because it really is a great film and deserves to be seen by anyone crazy about movies. It's a great movie and an interesting time capsule into the 1930s/1950s. It would have been nice to get something like a commentary track by surviving actors (Peter Graves) or some interviews, but that's a bone that I've been picking with Paramount for a long time. I'm assuming that executives over at Paramount aren't combing the 'net looking for my opinions, so this disc will have to do.
Also, as a side note: I'm not sure what the original poster art to this film was, but I'm sure it would have looked better than that one-note William Holden face shot they have on the cover of this DVD.
For the price tag, Stalag 17 is a bit steep for what you are getting (just the movie), so you may want to think twice before laying down your dough for this disc. On the other hand, this film is so good with a well done transfer that it's hard not to promote it as a good buy. I'd say rent it first, and if you feel it's something you'd watch again, go ahead and visit Best Buy.
Free to go, but it's a shame we didn't get anything more with such a classic film.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Release Year: 1952
MPAA Rating: Not Rated