#5 in my Ranking of Billy Wilder movies.
It’s an interesting thing how filmmakers seem to be reacting from one movie to the next. A movie with a certain outlook is followed by another that seems to have another outlook entirely, but because they’re both coming from the same filmmaker, they still carry many of the same hallmarks and even core conception of the world. In Billy Wilder’s previous film, Ace in the Hole, a cynic destroys several lives in the pursuit of his self-interest. In his next film, the cynical self-interested party ends up the hero because of his cynical self-interest.
It’s late 1944, the German army is fighting its last great offensive in The Battle of the Bulge, and Stalag 17 is filled with Allied POWs. A barracks of a few dozen American sergeants does what good military men should do and plan on escape. The movie opens with an attempt by two of them. As they’re preparing to leave, the ones staying behind start betting about how far they’ll get. Some say all the way to Switzerland, other’s to at least the lake that borders Germany and the neutral state, but JJ Sefton cynically says that they won’t get out of the forest that surrounds the prison camp. Sefton’s right, unfortunately, and he takes his winnings of cigarettes and adds them to his large collection of contraband he keeps in a chest.
He’s set apart from everyone from the opening of the movie, creating a palpable sense of suspicion between him and the rest of the barracks. All of their plans are getting foiled. The two men died, but the Germans also know exactly how it happened, how the two got out of the barracks, and where the tunnel outside the compound started and ended. That feeds into the suspicion against Sefton that he’s a mole, giving information to the German guards in exchange for the goodies he’s keeping in his chest. But Sefton knows he’s not the mole. He tries to fly above the concerns of his fellow prisoners, continuing his rackets (like a telescope that looks into the neighboring Russian female prison, and mouse races) like normal, but he can’t tamp down the suspicion and his actions are just making it worse.
The movie doesn’t completely hinge on the identity of the true mole. We find out the method of the mole’s communication at about the half hour point and the mole’s real identity at the hour mark. The mystery of the film isn’t what drives it’s second half, but the tension of how Sefton is going to convince the rest of the barracks that one of the most trusted members of the barracks’ leadership is actually the mole. Sefton plays his hand perfectly, and his motive is always selfish. His selfishness accidentally put him into the crosshairs of his bunkmates, and his selfishness is what gets him out of his predicament and out of the camp as a whole.
Now, Sefton dominates the plot of the film, but the film as a whole really is an ensemble piece. Sefton’s a much smaller part of the overall picture than a plot summary would imply. There’s a large cast of characters that provide different types of entertainment, the most prominent being Animal and Shapiro who provide most of the comedic elements in the film, largely centered on Animal’s infatuation with Betty Grable. This feeds into the movie’s masterful command of tone.
It’s deceptively hard to move from one tone to another in a film. Going from a comedic scene to a dramatic one too suddenly can create a jarring effect that takes an audience out of the film, but Stalag 17 knows exactly how to glide between them. Lighter moments feed into dangerous moments feed right back into lighter ones like a juggler easily moving from one ball to another.
Wilder’s command of visual storytelling is on display as well. He has many of the trademarks of some of the great studio directors who knew how to shoot entire scenes exactly the way they were going to end up in the final product (a protective measure he learned very early in his career), so long single shot scenes play out without ever feeling like there needs to be a cut. The reveal of the messaging system to Sefton (which we already know at this point) is so easily and elegantly executed wordlessly.
The film as a whole is a great accomplishment by Wilder. It’s funny, scary, and tense in equal measure while feeling like a cohesive whole the entire time. It’s filled with great performances, looks fantastic, and is such a great entertainment from beginning to end.
Netflix Rating: 5/5
Quality Rating: 4/4