Stalag 17 (Billy Wilder, 1953)

Billy Wilder made a habit of directing films that are arguably the quintessential examples of their genre. In 1944’s Double Indemnity he defined the film noir genre. Then in 1950 Sunset Boulevard hit the big screen, perhaps the best film to ever tackle Hollywood itself. With Stalag 17, a film released in 1953, he directed what many people consider to be the greatest Prisoner of War (POW) film ever released. Of course, fans of The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Great Escape may argue the toss, but Stalag 17 is up there with the best of them.

One of the most memorable scenes of the film, expertly framed.

One of the most memorable scenes of the film, expertly framed.

Set in 1944, the film focuses on the titular Luftwaffe POW camp where 640 American captured sergeants reside alongside Polish, Czech and Russian captives. It is narrated by Clarence “Cookie” Cook (Gil Stratton), reminiscing on his time in the camp. The opening sequence shows two men trying to escape from the camp, whilst the remaining men in their block argue with Sefton (William Holden) about their potential success at escaping as he takes their bets. As the only person sure of their failure, Sefton wins a large supply of cigarettes from his comrades. As the men come around to the thought that their failure may have been caused by a tip off to one of the Nazi officers, suspicion falls on the ever-cynical Sefton, who appears to be profiting nicely from various trades and deals far more than anyone else held captive. Unwilling to protest his innocence, Sefton resolves to find the real informer and expose him before another there are any more casualties.

What strikes most prominently about this film is its inclination towards comedy. It is certainly rooted in the seriousness of being held as a POW in Nazi Germany, but the comradeship and light-heartedness with which the Americans deal with their situation sets it apart from other films in this genre. It doesn’t just stop at the relationship between those of the same nationality. Indeed, it takes on quite a comical depiction of the relationship between the guards and the captives, illustrating a softer side to the Nazi officers that is seldom depicted elsewhere.

As the film progresses, however, the comical aspects fade somewhat to allow the seriousness of the situation to take centre stage. This contrast is less harsh than, say, Life is Beautiful (Roberto Benigni, 1997), but it works perfectly. The light-heartedness encourages the viewer to warm to all the characters quicker than would have otherwise been possible and by the time the final act plays out the tension is at its peak.

William Holden rightly won an Oscar for his performance as Sefton, spoiling the party that year for the likes of Marlon Brando (Julius Caeser) and Richard Burton (The Robe). The popularity of the film can be put down to two factors at the time. Firstly, the film was withheld from release until 1953 because Paramount Pictures didn’t believe anyone would be interested in a POW film; only when the release of prisoners following the end of the Korean War did it have a widespread political context (both the US release and the end of the Korean War occurred in July 1953). Secondly, the backdrop of the film industry itself was focused on the Hollywood Blacklist, a list of those industry professionals considered to be supportive of communism. This was at its height in 1953, but no studios would dare release a film to directly tackle these issues. The storyline of a lone man being singled-out by his peers based on false circumstantial evidence will no doubt have gained extra resonance against this ongoing issue.

Stalag 17 deserves to be seen, for its excellent performances, magnificent direction and historical relevance. With it being a Masters of Cinema release, there has never been a better time to check it out.

Stalag 17 is available to purchase now from Masters of Cinema on Blu-Ray.

Masters of Cinema Cast – Episode 42: The Lost Weekend (Billy Wilder, 1945)

I had the pleasure this week of recording an episode of the hugely popular and entertaining podcast Masters of Cinema Cast with Joakim Thiesen. We talked at great length about the 1945 Billy Wilder film The Lost Weekend.

Here’s the link.

Give it a listen! Hope you enjoy it!

One, Two, Three (Billy Wilder, 1961)

One of Wilder’s less fondly remembered films, “One, Two, Three” treads safe ground for Wilder by being adapted into a Hollywood blockbuster comedy from a European play (in this case the 1929 Hungarian one-act play “Egy, Kettő, Három” by Fenenc Molnár). It stars James Cagney as C.R. “Mac” MacNamara, the general manager of Coca-Cola’s operations in West Berlin, tasked with looking after his manager’s teenage daughter Scarlett Hazeltine (Pamela Tiffin) for a brief period as she visits the city. Seeing it as his chance to impress his boss Wendell P. Hazeltine (Howard St. John) and be handed a golden opportunity to take over operations in London, Mac sees it quickly unravel in the hands of a precocious 17-year-old girl, her East Berlin revolutionary fiancée Otto (Horst Buchholz) and a smattering of bad luck MacGuffins along the way.

There’s a reason why this film isn’t popular anymore. The jokes tend to point towards poking fun at former Nazi officers, caricatured communists and a disjointed society recovering from devastation. Considering Wilder himself lost three close family members in the war and only escaped the Nazi onslaught by some good fortune, however, it is perhaps incorrect to dismiss it as being simply dated. Wilder had a motive to make this film, which is in deep contrast to his former documentary short Death Mills – he wanted to bring his unique blend of humour to a topic close to his heart.

It is unfortunate, then, that the jokes themselves fall short on so many occasions. Wilder achieved timelessness in many of his feature films but the sort of slapstick fast-paced humour seen here hasn’t aged well. It’s actually hard to see what joy 1961 audiences would have found in its farcical plot.

"Are we there yet?" "No, there are still fifteen minutes of dated jokes to go, son."

“Are we there yet?” “No, there are still fifteen minutes of dated jokes to go, son.”

There is some deep-seated commercialism on show too. The film is entirely set in and around Coca-Cola’s operations in West Berlin, providing ample opportunity for product placement. Not wishing to spoil the punchline to the final joke, the one reference at this point to Pepsi-Cola underlines the focus on advertising Coca-Cola. There’s no evidence to suggest there was a sponsorship deal with them, but in the modern age of cinema this kind of product placement has become tiresome so it is retrospectively detrimental to the integrity of the film.

It’s fast paced and hard to keep up with but die-hard Wilder fans will find some enjoyment here. Just don’t seek it out hoping for anything special.

The Seven Year Itch (Billy Wilder, 1955)

Billy Wilder’s 1955 romantic comedy The Seven Year Itch has proved to be one of his most popular films. It was his first pairing with Marilyn Monroe and whilst it fails to hit the peaks of 1959’s Some Like It Hot, it still has enough redeeming qualities to warrant its popularity.

The film concerns married man Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell), who is experiencing what psychologists refer to as the seven year itch – after seven years of marriage many experience discomfort brought on by extended monogamous relationships. Richard becomes infatuated with a girl (Monroe) living above his apartment whilst his wife and child visit Maine for the summer to escape the Manhattan heat. As he tangles himself up in his own mind his tendency to daydream takes over, a matter exacerbated by his increasing closeness to his new friend.

Marilyn Monroe is a breath of fresh air when she first appears.

It is these daydreams that provide most of the laughs. As the film progresses they become more surreal and the window into Richard’s mind becomes a portal to a place full of fear and panic. Ewell’s performance can feel a little forced at times and the actor fails to endear Sherman to the viewers, an essential requirement when we’re watching him attempt to commit adultery. Perhaps his acting was better suited to the Broadway stages where the subtleties of emotion need to be overplayed to ensure the back row sees it. After an estimated 900 performances in the role it would be hard to unlearn that. This would ultimately prove to be his defining role.

The script is the perfect platform for Monroe to unleash the naïve and bubbly persona that served her so well throughout her career. It works on this level and she’s a breath of fresh air when she first appears. 

A discussion about this film can’t go very far without mentioning the famous subway air vent scene, where Monroe’s dress flies up in the breeze created by the train passing by underneath. It is perhaps one of the most iconic shots in any film ever released. It doesn’t quintessentially add or detract from the story itself, so if you’re watching just for that scene you may be a little underwhelmed. Indeed, you may never see what you hope for – the famous full-length photo the world is familiar with was taken at the original shoot, which was unusable due to crowd commotion. The scene later had to be recreated in a studio. At no point does the full-length shot appear.

The film was actually name-checked in Sabrina, Billy Wilder’s previous film released a year earlier. It’s hard to resist comparing the two films. Side-by-side, this doesn’t really come close to the magic audiences had seen when Audrey Hepburn wowed the world by pairing her timeless beauty with a sublime acting performance. Monroe was never an actress of the same calibre as Hepburn and this isn’t helped by a much more shallow script.

The Seven Year Itch is available to buy on Blu-Ray now.

Sabrina (Billy Wilder, 1954)

In 1954, Audrey Hepburn was at the start of a run that saw some of her most popular roles, having been nominated for an Academy Award for her role in Funny Face the year before and also winning a Tony Award for her title role in the stage production of Ondine in 1954. Sabrina’s release saw her cement her position as a global star, providing an Academy Award nomination for her role, a win for the costume design for Edith Head [1] and garnering critical and commercial success worldwide. 

[SPOILER ALERT] 

The following paragraph summarises the synopsis, but potentially has spoilers for the first fifty minutes of the film. I’ve not seen the trailer, but I imagine it reveals more. Also, the film was released 61 years ago, so it’s hard to complain about spoilers. Skip it if you’re concerned. 

Audrey Hepburn stars as title character Sabrina Fairchild, the young daughter of the chauffer to the Larrabee family. Sabrina has been in love with the playboy David Larrabee (William Holden) all her life, despite the fact he barely notices her. Sabrina begrudgingly agrees to go to Paris to attend a culinary school, but on her return two years later she is a completely changed woman, full of style, charm and sophistication. Inevitably, David immediately takes notice, and his attraction to Sabrina jeopardises a pre-arranged marriage that has been organised to benefit the family business, much to the dismay of workaholic older brother Linus (Humphrey Bogart), who formulates a plan to get the deal back on track.

[SPOILERS DONE]

It marked the first time Hepburn had worked with Billy Wilder, who was one of the most prominent film directors at the time. By this point he’d already notched up Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945), Sunset Boulevard (1950), Ace In The Hole (1951) and Stalag 17 (1953), amongst others. His films had by this time won 8 Academy Awards and been nominated an additional 28 times. Ultimately, Sabrina would prove to be equally popular, adding an additional win and three further nominations to his belt.

The successes were completely justified. Wilder may be on comfortable territory with a fairly standard love triangle, but few director-screenwriters could inject so much life into the script. If you want to see Wilder capturing Hepburn at her most playfully charming, there are few finer examples than her journey back from the airport with Holden’s David. It’s perfectly written and delivered and is one of the film’s many highlights.

Much has been made of Bogart’s awkwardness on set. He was one of the most established actors in Hollywood and at the time was still one of the biggest box office draws. He frequently had disagreements with Wilder and Holden, and later publicly denounced Audrey Hepburn’s acting ability. The friction doesn’t really transfer to the screen, with all the actors apparently on top of their game. 

The only thing that stands out is the age of the actors in the love triangle. William Holden was 36, Hepburn 24 and Bogart 54. I agree to the much-discussed theory that Holden would have been better as the older brother Linus, with a younger actor appearing as David. Holden had proved to Wilder his depth as an actor in both Sunset Boulevard and Stalag 17 and by comparison the character of David seems a little shallow. He handles it well, but age-wise having Sabrina fall in love with a man 30 years her senior seems unusual.

Sabrina has been remembered as one of Audrey Hepburn’s finest moments. It’s a quintessential part of her filmography: she was in the process of becoming a star, was able to show off her acting ability, had one of the greatest directors of all time directing her and was wearing de Givenchy’s costumes for the first time. If you’ve seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s and My Fair Lady, then this is your next stop.

Sabrina can be purchased as part of the Hepburn Collection Blu-Ray boxset.

[1] The costumes that Audrey Hepburn wears are absolutely beautiful, much like the actress herself. Edith Head was credited with the Academy Award for Best Costumes, but there is an ongoing suggestion that they were mainly created by Hubert de Givenchy. Both were adamant that they were responsible for the costume design until their deaths, though the fact that de Givenchy became Hepburn’s go-to costume designer for much of her career suggests it is more than likely that Head had little involvement with her clothing. Whilst there were many other characters to dress, the Oscar was clearly given as a merit to Hepburn’s memorable costumes.

Death Mills (Billy Wilder, 1946)

I talked previously about my interest in the upcoming release of the film Concentration Camps: A Factual Survey (on limited release at the moment across the UK, though no sign of a Blu-ray/DVD release as yet). Whilst this BFI restoration has been receiving plenty of attention, it isn’t the only film of its type that exists. One other such film is Death Mills, directed by Billy Wilder. In truth, the film is actually a truncated version of the longer Factual Surveys, with Wilder selecting only 22 minutes of footage to create a short film.

The films in question had a very particular purpose: to capture the first looks inside the concentration camps that had been in operation during World War II; to ensure that the atrocities inside the camps were filmed for the whole world to see and could never be forgotten, despite the Nazi Party’s best attempts to cover them up. Another important purpose was to ensure they were shown to all Germans to show them exactly what was happening at the camps, to avoid any shadow of doubt for denial.

The contents of the film are visually shocking and not for the faint-hearted. It is a wholly distressing watch. The impact of the images, which speak for themselves, is heightened by an effective score and a doom-laden voiceover. It’s one thing to see the camps being portrayed in a fictionalised film, but something else completely to see the reality first-hand. The images, quite simply, are the darkest I have ever seen committed to film.

At the time this was made, Billy Wilder was one of the hottest directorial talents in the world. He had won the Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for The Lost Weekend in 1945, a year after the release of critically acclaimed Double Indemnity (which was nominated for seven Academy Awards and still regularly appears on greatest films lists). Despite his Western-sounding name, he had in fact been born Samuel Wilder in Austria-Hungary (in a region now part of Poland) and later escaped in the early 1930s to Paris in light of the rise of the Nazi Party. He eventually made his way to Hollywood in 1933, though his family remained in Poland and were murdered during the Holocaust. It is for this reason that Wilder would have felt so passionately about taking part in the project, making his visit to the camp in Auschwitz all-the-more poignant as at the time he believed this to be the place of death for his mother, grandmother and stepfather (though in fact this was later disproved by Wilder biographer Andreas Hutter). Interestingly, the film doesn’t make a particular point of detailing quite how many Jewish people were killed in the Holocaust, perhaps because the exact figures weren’t quite understood at the time.

This is a deliberately distressing film but one of such importance as a historical document that it deserves to be watched. It is important it is made available now so that those who lost their lives so needlessly are never forgotten.

The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960)

I’ve been on something of a Billy Wilder binge recently, having recently sat down and enjoyed Ace in the Hole, The Lost Weekend and Double Indemnity (three excellent Masters of Cinema releases), Oscar-winning Sunset Boulevard and the classic Some Like It Hot. It was just a matter of time before I picked up The Apartment, which is considered to be amongst his best works. When I saw it in my local FOPP for £4 it was an insta-purchase [1].

The story is the perfect basis for a romantic comedy. Jack Lemmon plays “Buddy” Baxter, a lonely man working at an insurance company in New York. However, he has a secret that is allowing him to rise up the corporate ladder much faster than his peers – he is loaning his apartment out to senior members of the company so they can carry out extra-marital affairs. However, when company boss Jeff F. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) hears about it, he decides that rather than reprimand Baxter, he is going to make use of his hospitality himself. As bad luck would have it, the woman he is planning to take there is the woman of Baxter’s dreams: Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine). With the next promotion in the bag and his career blooming, Baxter has to make the most difficult choice of his life: is his love life more important than his career?

The 1960 film won the Best Film, Best Director, Best Writing (Original Screenplay), Best Film Editing and Best Art Direction (Set Decoration, Black and White) Oscars, whilst being nominated for a further five. This was in a relatively slow year for films, though there were a couple of highly reputable releases: Psycho (no wins) [2] and Spartacus (four wins). The Apartment was the big winner that year.

Probably the most surprising result on the night was Jack Lemmon missing out to Burt Lancaster (Elmer Gantry) in the Best Actor category, such was the brilliance of his performance. I think there’s a risk when looking back at Lemmon’s career that we now see him as just a comedic actor. That couldn’t be further from the truth and if you want to know why then watch this film. Kevin Spacey dedicated his Best Actor Oscar win in 1999 for American Beauty to Lemmon’s performance in this film, and there are a lot of similarities to both the characters and their characterisations. Baxter is a man used by all those around him, but yet is happy to take his lot in life. There is a dark humour to his actions, knowing they will have negative repercussions on his life but either afraid or unable to say no. There are moments of real hilarity, all centred around Baxter, but by the final third of the film it is way beyond that and as a viewer it was quite distressing seeing how much he was hurting himself.

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There is also a lot to be said for a comedy that is happy to centre a huge period of the plot around a botched suicide attempt by one of the main characters, whilst characterising five of the six leading male characters as adulterers (along with their willing female partners). There is a reason why this Christmas-set romantic comedy isn’t a perennial favourite over the festive season – it’s just too depressing!

So it’s six watched and six enjoyed films in the Billy Wilder back-catalogue. I’ve still got some big guns to go; Sabrina, Stalag 17 and The Seven Year Itch will hopefully be sourced soon at a reasonable price. I doubt I’ll find a bad one any time soon. The Apartment is available to buy now online, though as stated above I doubt you’ll find anything cheaper than the £4 price point in FOPP at the moment.

[1] = FOPP is still an excellent source of films and is still my favoured physical-purchase shop when I need to just have a browse and see what’s available. It’s nice to use my own instincts and memory to recommend a purchase to myself. You know, like the old days when you weren’t force-fed what to buy next by an algorithm.

[2] The letter below is some recomendation, from Hitchcock himself. What a wonderful thing to have been unearthed.

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