Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Free William Holden

Apparently, some people don't like Stalag 17, Billy Wilder's 1953 movie about life in a German POW camp. They're bewildered by its mix of drama and black comedy, or they find the pacing uneven, or they're upset that it doesn't show camp life as one of unrelenting misery. I must disagree: I think it's one of the finest movies about World War II ever made, a taut, crackling, nail-biting thriller.

Stalag 17 stars William Holden as J. J. Sefton, a cynical, opportunistic, less-than-upper-crust Bostonian with a chip on his shoulder the size of Montana. Unlike his fellow prisoners, who view it as their duty to escape, Sefton is an entrepreneur who has made a pretty comfortable life for himself by trading freely with both the Germans and the Americans and is in no hurry to leave. His mercenary attitude makes him extremely unpopular in the camp; when it becomes clear that someone in the barracks is feeding information to the Germans (Sig Ruman as Sgt. Schulz and Otto Preminger as kommandant Col. von Scherbach), he becomes the number one suspect.

Of course, it's not him; so who is it? Hoffy (Richard Erdman), the strangely complacent barracks chief? Duke (Neville Brand), the vigilante braying loudest for Sefton's blood? Cookie (Gil Stratton), Sefton's flunky? Animal (Robert Strauss), the amiable slob with a thing for Betty Grable? Joey (Robinson Stone), the sole survivor of his aircrew who seems to have a serious case of PTSD? No, it's Price (Peter Graves), the big, blond Security man, who's really a German himself. I pride myself on my ability to detect culprits before they're revealed, but I never saw that one coming.

Sefton figures out the clever mechanism by which Schulz and Price communicate, learns the traitor's identity, then exposes him to the other inmates so neatly, so intelligently, it's awesome to behold. And the ending, in which he ruthlessly tosses Price to the German guards as a distraction to even the odds as he smuggles a saboteur (Don Taylor as Lt. Dunbar) out of the camp, is as cold-blooded and poetically just as anything ever put on screen.

It's a shame Holden was such a handsome guy and was forced to play the leading man type, because he was born to play the antihero. Both in Stalag 17 and the earlier Sunset Blvd. (also directed by Wilder), he sizzles, he incandesces, in a way he never did in any of his stalwart hero roles. When he plays a good guy, all stiff with righteousness, it's like he's holding himself in; but when he plays a heel, all sneering wisecracks and arrogant swagger, it's like he's letting himself go free, and that's a beautiful thing.

As always in a Wilder film, the characters have a striking moral complexity. The obvious example is Sefton, who starts out a cheerful collaborator, willing to bribe or barter with his German captors to buy himself an extra comfort or privilege. But Cookie is his eager helper and toady; isn't Cookie just as complicit, just as morally responsible? Yet no one resents or scorns him the way they do Sefton, perhaps because Cookie is obsequious where Sefton is superior. His bunkmates hate Sefton for his success and their need of him; in their desperate desire for the commodities and services he provides, they also become willing to look the other way, to ignore their own complicity. Their rage boils over into mob violence once the accusation of spying gives them the excuse, but it's notable that what the action really frees them to do is plunder Sefton's possessions without guilt.

Sefton, meanwhile, shows that he is not the louse everyone thinks he is; if he were, why would he be so upset by their accusation, or by the realization that the true traitor is still free to work his malice? He could lie back and let events take their course; instead he uses the same devious skills that made him so hated to unmask Price and clear his own name. Then, instead of embracing his sheepish mates' acceptance to resume his black-marketeering ways, he throws it back in their teeth, stepping up to undertake the daring escape with Dunbar under the Germans' very noses. Is it really all because of possible reward money from Dunbar's rich mother? Well, to paraphrase Sam Spade, I'm sure it's one more item on that side of the scale.

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