Masters Of Cinema #117 - Stalag 17 - Blu-ray Review

'Harvey Lembeck and Robert Strauss as Shapiro and "Animal" respectively reprise with aplomb their roles first seen in the original broadway play'.

Billy Wilder's follow-up to Ace In The Hole, his flawless satire on journalism, sees the director shift focus to American prisoners of war during World War II but largely continue with a similar tone. However, whilst Ace In The Hole's moments of humour were usually subtle, Stalag 17 is much more often an overt comedy, perhaps surprising for a film released only eight years after the global conflict within which it is set.

The film's funny scenes are in fact quite often the most successful on offer throughout Stalag 17. Wilder regularly strikes the right balance in generating humour from the POWs' daily lives. Scenes in which messages are reported and mail delivered to the prisoners offer some of the most successful humour; a sequence involving a "reading" of Mein Kampf and some fake moustaches remarkably similar to that of the book's infamous author is also well executed. Whilst some of the humour here relies too heavily on Nazi officers being characterised as either overly amiable, dim-witted, or both, Wilder manages to make the comedy within Stalag 17 work much more often than not.

After opening his film with a doomed escape attempt by two prisoners, and the subsequent introduction of the group's paranoia surrounding an informant in the barracks, the director places unfolding the plot as a firm second to setting up moments of humour during the opening hour or so of his film. Whilst this makes Stalag 17 an entertaining watch during its first half, it does leave the film feel a little too lacking in focus to feel truly satisfying. That said, Wilder's cast regular make up for this. Stand-out performances come from William Holden as Sefton, who increasingly becomes a figure of suspicion amongst the prisoners; and the comedy duo of Harvey Lembeck and Robert Strauss as Shapiro and "Animal" respectively, reprising with aplomb their roles first seen in the original broadway play from which Wilder adapted his film.

The director pleasingly brings the main story back into focus during the closing hour, with the additional thread of the liberation of Lieutenant Dunbar (Don Taylor) from the prison before being turned over to the SS bringing fresh focus to proceedings. Wilder builds the tension expertly, with Sefton increasingly flourishing within the narrative - Holden's performance growing ever more impressive - as the film nears its conclusion. The climax is captivating, both brilliantly executed and bookending the narrative superbly, allowing Wilder to wrap up Stalag 17 at arguably its strongest point.

Founded in 2004, The Masters of Cinema Series is an independent, carefully curated, UK-based Blu-ray and DVD label, now consisting of over 150 films. Films are presented in their original aspect ratio (OAR), in meticulous transfers created from recent restorations and / or the most pristine film elements available.

Stalag 17 is released in the UK on Monday 27th July 2015

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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