Stalag 17 (1953)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 22 April (11.00 am)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Whilst not on the top table of films directed by Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Ace in the Hole, Sunset Boulevard and The Apartment, for my money) Stalag 17 is certainly interesting and stays in the mind for some time after having watched it. It’s adapted from a play, which was written by two war veterans about their experiences as prisoners in an Austrian camp, by all accounts a tedious and melancholic existence of men cooped up together. I’ve chosen the above poster deliberately as I think it conveys well the cramped living conditions experienced by the men, though don’t be fooled by the blanket wearing blonde – she represents the Russian women who are confined in the neighbouring bunker, distant objects of lust to the men starved of female companionship.

The story takes place in 1944. American Sergeants who have been captured by Germany are being held in Stalag 17 in Austria, and find they’re treated well enough. They can have a laugh with their jovial guard Schulz (Sig Ruman), and the Commandant is a decent fellow (played by Otto Preminger) who only makes one request – no escape attempts. That’s fine where Sefton (William Holden) is concerned. Settling down to an opportunist’s life of organising horse racing events – mice do the racing – and selling moonshine, Sefton is the classic small-time capitalist, happy to eke out the remainder of the war at the Germans’ expense because he knows that if he does get away he’ll be plunged straight back into the conflict, possibly even the dreaded Pacific theatre.

For everyone else, day follows monotonous day. There’s a neat thread of gallows humour in the movie, featuring desperately bored men doing crazy things to have a craic or wind each other up. The Betty Grable obsessed Animal (Robert Strauss) and his pal, Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck), come up with an unlikely whitewashing stunt in an attempt to make it into the next camp and acquaint with the Russian women. Life goes on. The trouble is that escape attempts are made. At the start of the film, two men use a tunnel they’ve dug beneath the bunker to flee the camp, only to run into an armed squadron outside, obviously prepared, and they’re gunned down. The clear indication is that someone inside Stalag 17 is a traitor, feeding the Germans information about everything that’s happening, and the finger of suspicion is pointed squarely at Sefton, the one who seems to enjoy the easiest relationship and enjoy the most perks with his captors. Sefton hasn’t helped himself by betting against the escape ending successfully. As the two mens’ bodies are left outside as a grisly warning, the feelings against Sefton start turning violent. It leaves him in the most difficult position, alleging himself to be innocent yet not believed and forced to spend his days alongside people who now hate him.

Stalag 17 is told from the perspective of Cookie (Gil Stratton), Sefton’s dogsbody and an observer who can make out the downbeat emotional tenor of the bunker. It’s his experience we follow, and for the time it was quite new to witness a war film without much action or any real heroics, let alone a character that can be identified as the ‘hero’ figure. That certainly isn’t Sefton, cynical and hard-edged, making it clear that he’s only looking out for himself. Holden was reluctant to take the part, seeing few redeeming qualities in his character, though it can certainly be argued it’s a realistic one and there are moments, as he faces exile from the other Americans whilst siting alongside them, that he can quietly analyse what’s going on to unearth the real traitor. As Stalag 17 did well both commercially and with the critics, Holden clinched an Oscar for his portrayal, albeit one deferred from his previous work with Wilder on Sunset Boulevard, and helped to set the tone for prisoner of war anti-heroes in numerous films and TV shows that followed.

The mystery at the heart of the film is only one element, though, with much time elsewhere devoted to the day to day goings on, the Americans’ efforts to win cheap victories over their captors by masking their smuggled radio wires, the hi-jinks of Animal and Shapiro, the monotonous routines with no one knowing how long they are going to have to eke it out for. Whilst lacking some of the more brutal sights of other ‘prisoner’ films, it sets an atmosphere of quiet despair and rootlessness, and whilst it succeeds in the depiction it takes a very long time to make viewers share their conditions. There’s a much tauter film at the heart of Stalag 17, but any suspense struggles to emerge amidst the drudgery.

Stalag 17: ***

Double Indemnity (1944)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 20 January (12.55 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Many moons ago, I had a job that didn’t involve a lot of work and allowed much time for meaningless surfing of the web, which at the time was a fairly recent novelty. Whilst AltaVista-ing for movie sites, I came across a page that promised to explain the tropes of Film Noir. Innovatively, you could read the comments by clicking on certain items held within a single shot; the still was naturally from Double Indemnity, and if you clicked, say, on Barbara Stanwyck, you would then open a new page entitled Molls, and there were further descriptions on lighting, smoking, suits, and so on. The point is that Double Indemnity was the obvious choice for the site’s portal. If not the first Film Noir, it’s almost certainly its ultimate expression, the quintessential Noir picture. It’s a happy collision of talents who would go on to be names synonymous with the Noir style, and in my eyes it’s about as close to perfection as cinema gets.

The list of credits alone is a roll-call of the great and good. Director Billy Wilder was an Austrian emigré, leaving Vienna when Hitler came to power and realising his Jewish ancestry would cause him problems as the Nazi influence spread. Better known in the German speaking world as a screenwriter, Wilder directed one feature in France before moving to America; Double Indemnity was his third directorial effort in the States, and whilst he had a hand in the script he found his grip on English would be an impediment and hired Raymond Chandler to work alongside him on it. The two men hated each other, but Wilder encouraged the working relationship, thinking the antipathy would make for a screenplay crackling in tension. For Chandler, already a noted crime writer with The Big Sleep bringing him to Wilder’s notice, there was little love for the source material, the short novel written by James M Cain in 1936, and he updated much of the dialogue to his own, whiplash exchanges between the characters.

Wilder hired Hungarian composer, Miklos Rozsa, for the soundtrack. Better known later in his career for scoring some of epic cinema’s biggest hits, this was an early credit in his Hollywood body of work (his first was for Wilder’s previous film, Five Graves to Cairo) and for it, he was Oscar nominated. Rozsa claimed he wrote the score as though for a love story, increasing the mood of doomed melodrama that soaks the film, whilst the trembling strings that accompany the flashbacks ramp up the tension.

Just as important to the production was regular Wilder collaborator, cinematographer John Seitz, who for Double Indemnity helped to establish the atmospheric lighting that would become a hallmark of Film Noir. For a film of such dark subject matter, the screen is often suffused in darkness, using night-for-night filming to marvellous effect. Even more iconic is the ‘Venetian Blind’ lighting, star Fred MacMurray often filmed against blinds to give the impression he’s already behind bars whilst plotting ‘the perfect crime’.

Lead actress Stanwyck was the first and only choice for Phyllis Dietrichson, the scheming wife who arranges a double indemnity insurance policy on her husband’s life that will net her a windfall if he dies. The best known female actor in Hollywood at the time, Stanwyck was unsure about taking the role initially as she normally portrayed heroines, which this part most certainly was not. However she accepted, and was duly given a blonde wig and anklet to wear throughout the film, heightening her character’s essential trashiness. Opposite her was MacMurray as the doomed insurance broker, Walter Neff. MacMurray was cast at the end of a long list of auditions and considerations, and like Stanwyck was playing against type whilst similarly putting in a brilliant performance. The film is framed by Neff’s lengthy confession to his manager, Barton Keyes (Edward G Robinson). Speaking into a dictaphone, Neff’s story leads to a series of flashbacks, his description of meeting Phyllis, arranging the policy and simultaneously falling for her, helping to concoct a plan that takes in the murder of her husband before claiming the money and riding off into the sunset together. Or so he believes that’s what’s going to happen. In reality, he learns that Phyllis isn’t as devoted a partner as she made out, and that there’s a strong possibility he’s been played all along. Worse still, as Neff begins telling his tale it’s clear he’s in pain, possibly terminally, which means the ‘perfect crime’ he’s describing will, at some point, go horribly wrong.

The biggest hitch in the lovers’ plan is none other than Keyes himself. A bloodhound when it comes to sniffing out cases of insurance fraud, Keyes is assiduous and Neff knows he will need their scheme to run perfectly in order for them to get away with it. It’s possible all will go well, but only if the execution is meticulous. Neff knows the key is to give Barton no hint that anything is awry, and he very nearly manages it, and apart from the issue of the money there’s his friendship with Keyes to consider. The two men are on fine terms and Neff sees this as vital in minimising the sense of suspicion. Then again, Keyes is the Sherlock Holmes of the insurance world; as he at first seems to see the death of Phyllis’s husband as a fluke, one of those things that will end in a big payout, his ‘little man’ is troubling him, and the slow realisation that something’s rotten and the uncovering of Neff and Phyllis’s plot is deliciously suspenseful, really agonising and inevitable. Robinson was also taking on a unusual role for himself, but his is a smart and measured turn, and it’s heartbreaking to see the complete lack of pleasure he takes in exposing Neff, such is his affection for the younger man.

Double Indemnity is an exercise in tightening tension, wonderfully realised, from the wounded Neff relating his story through to the almost completely successful crime being steadily unpicked. It’s one of those few titles that I dust off on a fairly regular basis for another viewing, and each time I’m gripped by something new. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Double Indemnity: *****