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Stalag 17 (1953)

by on 2010/11/13

Stalag 17 (the movie, not its prison camp) started promisingly enough.  I’d long heard the praises of Billy Wilder’s work and, despite owning some of his films, hadn’t seen many myself.  To discover he’d directed a war story was of interest to me, especially one frequently compared with long-time favourite The Great Escape.  So it was something of a disappointment to find that, after being hooked by the initial narration, I was left unimpressed all too soon.

Sergeant Sefton (William Holden) is the guy all the prisoners of war love to hate.  Or is it hate to love?  If it’s fun or forbidden he’s probably involved.  A smart aleck fence and huckster, he’s also the resident bookie, brewmaster, and pimp.  Some of the men begin to wonder how he does all he does, going unpunished.  Is he really resourceful, or in league with their captors?  Cue the paranoia and let the lynch mob witch-hunt begin.

I’m not often a fan of voice-overs but my appreciation for Stalag’s had me hoping.  Unfortunately that one win soured eventually.  In time it all became a bit cute for my liking, an affability gone twee.  I can’t blame my unimpressedness on that aspect alone, for the movie lost me soon enough in other ways as well.

The early stabs at comedy seemed oddly distasteful to me.  Based on the cover art, description, and subject matter, I was expecting more of a war drama.  I quickly realized the jokes weren’t there for seasoning; they were a fundamental part of the piece.  So I adjusted my expectations, and was promptly thrown by exceptions like the tension of the kangaroo court, or the tragically traumatized piccolo-player.

I might have enjoyed Stalag somewhat more if the comedy had been to my taste.  If you like to yuk it up with a laff-riot slapstick, this one may be for you.  Monty Python and the Kids in the Hall do cross dressing well.  Here?  Not so much.  Silly voices?  Ditto.  Manic hyperactivity?  Screaming “I’m goin’ blind!” when a hat falls down over eyes?  Knock yourself out but, for me, almost every note was off.

Over time I noticed a strange sense of pacing which aggravated the flaws.  The call-and-answer rhythm of the script, its performance, the editing, or combinations of all three.  It felt too on-the-nose, as if the intended jokes weren’t part of the plan, just awkward inserts and obligatory cutaways:  cue the line, cut to the crowd, have them react . . . all done with a mechanical lack of fluidity, a rote sitcom with a missing laugh track.

Sorry, Mr. Wilder.  I enjoyed Buddy Buddy.  I loved Double Indemnity.  I wanted to enjoy this movie as well, but came away feeling gypped.  As much as it appealed to me — not only as a war story, but one set at Christmas time — it left me disappointed.  I found its humour uneasy and, worst of all, unfunny.  To sum it all up with a holiday metaphor: Stalag 17 wasn’t a bad gift per se, but it wasn’t well wrapped, and it wasn’t for me.

* * *

Rated PG

120 minutes

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