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Paramount Home Video presents
Stalag 17 (1952)

"This ain't no Salvation Army. This is everyone for himself, dog eat dog."
- Sefton (William Holden)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: March 19, 2006

Stars: William Holden, Don Taylor, Otto Preminger
Director: Billy Wilder

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 02h:00m:24s
Release Date: March 21, 2006
UPC: 097360412048
Genre: war


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A- A-AB- B-

DVD Review

Billy Wilder was a master at genre filmmaking (Double Indemnity, for instance, the best film noir, or Some Like It Hot, as great a comedy as you'll ever see), but what seemed to really give him a charge was crossing the streams, his efforts to fit square pegs into round holes. Who else would embrace the challenge of making a comedy about prisoners of war, not exactly a premise brimming with potential hilarity? Pretty much any Wilder film is worth watching, and he's in top form here—certainly things occasionally seem overly schematic, but they're still done with aplomb and style. And as with all of Wilder's films, top talent is on display on both sides of the camera.

The somewhat ungainly title is the designation of a P.O.W. barracks in Nazi Germany—the year is 1944, and the denizens of Stalag 17 are all U.S. sergeants captured by the Germans, giving their little impromptu community an entirely flat command structure. The trouble is, someone in the bunk thinks of himself as more equal than the others—or at least is consorting with the enemy, because plans hatched in secret are routinely being foiled by the Germans. And this isn't just the interception of a couple of black-market chocolate bars or packs of smokes—two of the intrepid Americans have attempted an escape via a tunnel they've all helped dig, but someone has ratted them out, and the two are gunned down without even making it past the prison camp wire. At the center of the story is Sefton—he keeps to himself, and has foot lockers filled with contraband, allowing him to wheel and deal with his captors. He's everybody's prime suspect for being the rat, though he denies it; and since he's played by William Holden, our inherent trust in his good character is something we have to count on.

There's an obvious and deliberate claustrophobia to the movie—the characters are confined, and Wilder's screenplay is based on a play that met with success on Broadway, but the director has found ample ways to sustain visual interest, to give a sense of the predicament of these soldiers without making his audience feel painfully cramped. He's aided in these efforts by his crackerjack production team, notably cinematographer Ernest Laszlo, and composer Franz Waxman. But it's the actors who make this picture a memorable one. Holden was as good a standup guy as there ever was on screen—the cloud of suspicion hangs over Sefton for much of the story, so only late in the game does the actor get to show his chops, but he's very good and winning throughout. (He won an Academy Award for his performance, but you can't help but feel that this was one Oscar in the tradition of making up for past mistakes—his performance is fine, but everyone seems to have realized that his finest hour was a couple of years before, in another Wilder picture, Sunset Boulevard.) Getting much less screen time but just as memorable is Otto Preminger, who plays the Nazi commandant of the camp—he plays the colonel as an effete sadist, the sort who as a child probably fried bugs with a magnifying glass. Preminger of course was a great filmmaker in his own right, and Wilder seemed to be uniquely skilled at getting directors to give great performances as actors—Erich von Stroheim in Sunset Boulevard would be probably the most famous instance of this.

A few female Russian prisoners in the barracks across the way is the closest thing that this movie has to a love interest, and in the relationships between the Americans, you can feel Wilder tiptoeing and grinning around some faint suggestions of homoeroticism. But mostly the boys are up to harmless hijinks—it's hard, then, not to think of this movie as the ür-text for Hogan's Heroes, the Germans as stupid children with superior weaponry, right down to the doofy soldier whose name is routinely bellowed by his superior officer: "Schultz!" The movie also has a peculiar new relevance, in light of the reports in recent months from Guantanamo, for much of the conversation between the Americans and their captors is given over to whether or not the Germans are abiding by the terms of the Geneva Convention. Somehow I don't expect this one to show up in Alberto Gonzales' Netflix queue any time soon.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: This is a very sharp transfer, with full-bodied tones and impressive resolution—Wilder and Laszlo use depth of field to great advantage, too, and it all looks quite good here.

Image Transfer Grade: A

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglish, Frenchyes


Audio Transfer Review: Not quite as sharp aurally—some of the layered dialogue can be rough going, and there's too much ambient noise.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-

 

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 14 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
2 Other Trailer(s) featuring The John Wayne Collection, Titanic: Special Collector's Edition
2 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by cast members Richard Erdman and Gil Stratton, and writer Donald Bevan
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. photo gallery
Extras Review: Donald Bevan, one of the writers of the play on which the film is based, is joined by a couple of cast members on the commentary track—Gil Stratton played Cookie, Sefton's aide de camp, and Richard Erdman played Hoffy, the barracks leader. They're a trio of old fellows talking over good times and trading ancient Hollywood gossip—they all seem like good company, but there are many empty patches on the track, and it's clear that they don't have two hours' worth of material to contribute, or that they could have done with somebody in the room facilitating the conversation, prodding them on a bit more. All three also appear in Stalag 17: From Reality to Screen (21m:58s), which also includes interview footage with Holden biographer Bob Thomas and Wilder biographer Ed Sikov. There are a few choice nuggets here—Charlton Heston was the studio's first choice for Sefton, for instance, but fortunately was unavailable. There's also an appreciation of the irony that Preminger, a Viennese Jew who fled the Third Reich, had a flourishing second career playing Nazis on screen.

The Real Heroes of Stalag XVIIB (24m:45s) allows us to hear POWs themselves, the greatest generation on their worst times. Unsurprisingly the prison camps they describe were much more harsh than those shown by Hollywood, but they were not without humor and camaraderie. The accompanying photo gallery features ten shots, from the set and the film's premiere.

Extras Grade: B-

 

Final Comments

A classically constructed, sturdily made picture from Billy Wilder—we've come to expect no less—in a sharp new transfer with an informative extras package. A war movie need not happen on the front lines to remind us that war is hell, and so 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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