Stalag 17 opens with narration explaining the film isn’t going to be like those other WWII pictures, where the soldiers are superhuman and the film bleeds patriotism. No, Stalag 17 is going to be something different—first off, it takes place not on the battlefield, but a German prison camp. Through coincidence, the camp is entirely full of sergeants, which causes a lot of personalities butting heads (but also personalities jibing). This story—the one narrator Gil Stratton is going to tell-takes place right before Christmas 1944. The explanation of the setup is the only time the film feels like a stage adaptation; director Wilder always has filmic uses for Stratton’s narration. Even when the plot’s moving along and the structure is very play-like, it never feels like one. The setting—a barracks in the camp (Stalag 17)—is naturally confined, but never naturally stagey.
The film opens in the aftermath of a failed escape attempt. Two guys try to get out, get caught. Right after they leave, scrounger and black market entrepreneur William Holden bets against the men escaping. His barrack-mates are incensed at his bet, but think little of it until there are subsequent hints there might be a mole in the barracks. Now, the audience already knows there’s a spy because Stratton’s talking about the time they had this spy in the barracks, but it takes the characters a while to catch up. It’s a wonderful play on expectation. The film runs a couple hours and 17’s well into that second hour before there’s much about the spy hunt. Until then, the film’s mostly humor. Because even though it opens establishing the barracks “brass”—barracks boss Richard Erdman, barracks security Peter Graves, barracks tough guy Neville Brand—in conflict with Holden—all with Stratton narration—pretty soon barracks goof-balls Harvey Lembeck and Robert Strauss take… well… center stage. In the non-stagey movie. It’s around Lembeck and Strauss, at least initially, the action plays out. There’s the introduction to the barracks German guard (Sig Ruman), there’s the growing suspicions of the prisoners, there’s Otto Preminger’s camp commander, who manages to be an opportunistic, mean-spirited jackass before he’s anything else. None of the prisoners have anything like Stockholm with the Germans, but it’s clear these German soldiers aren’t the crème de la crème… starting from Preminger down. So the Preminger stuff is funny and funny in how it’s dangerous, without ever being too dangerous.
The film’s very careful about how it portrays the comedy. Lembeck and Strauss are practically a slapstick duo, but Wilder never lets it get out of hand.
Once it’s clear there’s a spy, everyone—starting with the increasingly violent Brand—suspects Holden. Top-billed Holden is simultaneously perplexed and offended, but the film doesn’t increase his time onscreen. It’s still an ensemble, Holden’s still a standout, but he doesn’t get that spotlight just yet.
Not when there are still two more characters to bring in. Don Taylor (who’s second-billed but barely in the film and crucial to the plot) and Jay Lawrence (who’s like third-to-last billed, has nothing to do with the plot, but basically has a whole character arc about being integrated into the barracks culture).
Even after everyone starts suspecting Holden, it takes a long, long time before they act. When they do, no one seems to think through the repercussions, which the script mostly avoids and otherwise just barely addresses, while the performances imply the changes. When it all does end up falling on Holden, it’s not just the plot, it’s how the film’s going to acknowledge its character arcs. They all play through Holden’s perspective, which the film has ever so gently been assuming through the second act.
Of course, then Wilder switches it up again in the third act because, even though Holden’s giving this big, great movie star performance, it’s an ensemble piece.
Wilder completely relies on Holden but is subdued when it comes to needing to rely on him. It’s really cool, how Wilder and co-screenwriter Edwin Blum do all the character arcs. Because the actors are all usually onscreen, or at least they’re all in the same location; sometimes they’re background, sometimes they’re in the main action. And their arcs keeping going throughout; doesn’t slow down for anything, not even when opportunist Preminger thinks he’s finally going to get a promotion and he starts getting more story time.
The best performances—wildly different ones—are from Holden and Strauss. Strauss goes crazy, Holden never breaks a sweat. Wilder and Strauss figure out a way for him to devour scenes whereas Holden’s almost entirely passive. And both actors have to sell those character behaviors without explored motivation. No one, not even Taylor or Lawrence, get much introduction; Stalag 17 picks up in the middle of everyone’s story. Wilder doesn’t even slow down to set up narrator Stratton, which turns out to be fine. Initially odd, but eventually obviously good.
Brand is good as Holden’s de facto nemesis. Erdman and Graves are both fine. Taylor’s good. Great small turn from William Pierson; Wilder understands how to leverage straight comedy and doesn’t shy away from it. The guys playing it straight (like Brand, Erdman, and Graves) are kind of at a disadvantage. They’re not as memorable, which works out because it’s Stratton narrating it from—presumably—the present day, so almost ten years later.
Lawrence is really funny and great at the impressions. Again, Wilder knows how to execute straight comedy and does so.
Great editing from George Tomasini, especially great photography from Ernest Laszlo.
Stalag 17 is an outstanding success and a peculiar one. Not for how it succeeds—cast, crew, script—but for how succeeding plays out on screen. It’s like Wilder had to find a way to tell the story accessibly so he makes all these wide swings and always connects. Or if it’s not him connecting it’s Holden, who takes very short, measured swings, but always connects. It’s a great picture.
Produced and directed by Billy Wilder; screenplay by Wilder and Edwin Blum, based on the play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski; director of photography, Ernest Laszlo; edited by George Tomasini; released by Paramount Pictures.
Starring William Holden (Sgt. J.J. Sefton), Neville Brand (Duke), Richard Erdman (Sgt. ‘Hoffy’ Hoffman), Peter Graves (Sgt. Frank Price), Robert Strauss (Sgt. Stanislaus ‘Animal’ Kuzawa), Harvey Lembeck (Sgt. Harry Shapiro), Don Taylor (Lt. James Dunbar), Jay Lawrence (Sgt. Bagradian), Gil Stratton (Sgt. Clarence Harvey ‘Cookie’ Cook), Sig Ruman (Sgt. Johann Sebastian Schulz), and Otto Preminger (Oberst von Scherbach).