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Stalag 17: Special Edition

Billy Wilder is remembered as one of the great American directors of Hollywood's golden age, despite the fact that he wasn't American by birth. Nonetheless, he figures into one of the era's most significant, if sometimes overlooked, cliques — the Austrian/German émigrés, a collective that included Eric von Stroheim, Ernst Lubitsch, Fritz Lang, William Wyler, Joseph von Sternberg, Otto Preminger, Marlene Dietrich, and Peter Lorre. All achieved success as expatriates in the U.S. film industry, although each could be considered an outsider from the Hollywood mainstream. Their shared experiences and sentiments — many abandoned Germany due to the rise of Hitler and, in Wilder's case, a Jewish heritage — led to frequent collaborations. Wilder's first roommate in America was Lorre; his first co-writer was Lubitsch. Directors von Stroheim and Preminger took roles in his movies. Among his peers, Wilder would eventually achieve the greatest successes, pioneering film noir with Double Indemnity (1944), earning an Oscar for the first serious film on alcoholism, The Lost Weekend (1945), directing the definitive screen comedy Some Like It Hot (1959), and giving Hollywood its sharpest look at itself with Sunset Boulevard (1950). All of which barely scratches the surface of Wilder's contributions to cinema — he also gave Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, and Jack Lemmon career-defining roles. But it's hard to overlook just one more genre that we can thank Billy Wilder for: Without Stalag 17 (1953), Hollywood may never have planted its flag in muddy, overcrowded POW camps, searching for the next big movie.

Adapted from the hit Broadway play by former POWs Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski, Stalag 17 opens with a familiar Billy Wilder motif: the voice-over narration, here provided by Cookie (Gil Stratton), the right-hand man of the camp scrounger, Sefton (William Holden). Although "scrounger" doesn't quite do justice to Sefton's sense of enterprise. Interred in a German luft stalag during the cold winter of 1943 with a motley bunch of non-commissioned officers who have little to do but kill time, he not only controls the majority of smuggled goods such as cigarettes and cameras, but he also brews moonshine from potato peels, organizes "horse races" (with rats), and arranges for a telescopic peep-show into a Russian women's camp across the way. As far as Sefton is concerned, it's every man for himself, and he doesn't consider trading with the German guards for privileges to be collaboration, but just a way to make life a little easier. However, after two escapees are gunned down moments after they cut the fence, the men of Stalag 17 are convinced that a stoolie's in their midst, and Sefton's chummy relations with the Germans make him the prime suspect. Matters aren't helped by the arrival of two bomber pilots, Dunbar (Don Taylor) and Bagradian (Jay Lawrence), who managed to booby-trap a munitions train after getting shot down. The camp commandant, Col. von Scherbach (Otto Preminger), intends to revoke Dunbar's Geneva rights as a saboteur. The men soon devise a plan to thwart Dunbar's firing squad — but as long as they think Sefton is the informer, they have no chance of pulling it off.

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When taking in a range of classic American titles from Double Indemnity to The Seven-Year Itch (1955) and The Apartment (1960), one might think that Billy Wilder had turned his back on Europe forever — however, while on the surface a rousing comedy and escape film, Stalag 17 must have resonated deeply with the director. The real "Stalag XVII B" was not in Germany, but in Austria, a mere 40 miles from Wilder's native Vienna, and while the entire production was shot on Paramount's soundstages and at the Calabassas Ranch, the fact that it all represented a continent under the jackboot of the Third Reich can't be overlooked — it's why Wilder was drawn to the story in the first place. Playwrights Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski originally pitched Stalag 17 to Paramount (it was rejected four times) before mounting a New York production. After the play became a long-running smash, Wilder considered it a valuable property. Nonetheless, such didn't mean he didn't throw out most of the original dialogue — as was his custom, he and writing partner Edwin Blum kept the basic plot and little else, often writing scenes the night before shooting and tailoring dialogue to the actors' performances. Wilder was coming off a box-office disaster with Ace in the Hole (1951), which meant that Paramount was expecting a cash-cow from Stalag, and while both Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas were considered for the role of Sefton, William Holden seems the best of all possible choices as a crude, burned-out cynic who barely acknowledges that a war is even underway. Wilder also allows for generous amounts of levity throughout, often deviating from the plot to highlight comic relief by Robert Strauss and Harvey Lembeck, who originated their roles on Broadway. The tone-shifts are bold, but they also illustrate just how much of a verbal director Wilder was, always driving his story with rapid dialogue and throwaway asides. "They don't make movies about POWs" Cookie says as the film gets underway. It wouldn't be true for much longer though, and if the definitive entry remains John Sturges's The Great Escape (1963), it owes much of its success to Billy Wilder, who proved you could shoot a movie in a POW camp, as long as one remembered that humor was a captured soldier's primary method of survival.

Paramount's Special Edition release of Stalag 17 updates a previous DVD edition with a solid full-frame transfer (1.33:1 OAR) from a splendid, pleasant black-and-white source-print that shows little in the way of damage or collateral wear with strong low-contrast details, while the restored monaural audio (DD 2.0) is crisp and clear. Playwright Donald Bevan is joined on a commentary track by actors Richard Erdman and Gil Stratton, while featurettes include "Stalag 17: From Reality to Screen" featuring writer-director Nicholas Meyer, biographers Bob Thomas and Ed Sikov, and others (22 min.), "The Real Heroes of Stalag XVII B" (24 min.), and a photo gallery, which includes an on-set still of Marlene Dietrich, who dropped by the camp one day for a surprise appearance. Keep-case.
—Robert Wederquist

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