Posts Tagged ‘Billy Wilder’

Movie Reviews 446 – Stalag 17 (1953)

August 21, 2020

Stalag 17 has always been one of my favourite WWII movies and a film that was on my DVD search list for a long time. As luck would have it, when I recently acquired an entire box full of free DVDs whose actual contents were a mystery, there it was at the very bottom. Score!

Now the first thing about the title is that it would sound awfully familiar to anyone who used to watch the old Hogan’s Heroes sitcom which took place in Stalag 13, “Stalag” being the German term for prisoner-of-war camps. While there are a few similarities including a doltish sergeant Schultz as a character, the similarities pretty much end there.

Another one of director Billy Wilder’s acclaimed films, this comedy drama sometimes gets short shrift only because he was such a prolific and successful director. And with a competing roster that includes Double Indemnity, Some Like it Hot, Witness for the Prosecution , The Apartment, Ace in the Hole , and Sunset Boulevard, who can you blame?

William Holden, being no stranger to playing a POWs as he did in The Bridge on the River Kwai, won the Academy Award for Best Actor playing J.J. Sefton, one of the inmates in Stalag 17. Ostracized not only because he trades with the German guards for favours, but also because he runs a bunch of schemes such as mice races earning him cigarettes and dough from the other inmates.

Sefton’s troubles begin when two escapees are shot the minute they make their break, a sure sign that the Germans were tipped off and laying suspicions that Sefton may have been responsible. When two new prisoners arrive after blowing up a German ammunition train and one of them is soon summed by the Commandant, Colonel von Scherbach (marvelously played by renown director Otto Preminger), only those sharing Sefton’s barracks could have spilled the fact that the new prisoners were involved in the sabotage. Now convinced that Sefton is the stoolie the former mere antagonism by his fellow captives turns to violence with a vicious beating and the confiscation of his lucrative personal goods chest. Not only is Sefton now a complete pariah, but what bothers him most is that there is a traitor among his fellow cabin inmates who no longer has to fear suspicion given that a convenient, yet innocent, scapegoat has already been identified. Even once Sefton does figure out which of his mates is the turncoat he realizes that merely outing the enemy in their midst would only be a temporary setback for them. Sefton must use his conniving mind for his greatest scheme of all if he is to come out on top this time.

Wilder brilliantly lays out a hilarious comedy while not sacrificing a moment of drama with many characters playing equally in both dispositions. Among the comedic elements, front and center are Harry “Sugar Lips” Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck) and Stanislas “Animal” Kuzawa (Robert Strauss) the former goading the latter who fantasizes romancing famed war pin-up Betty Grable. Other amusing characters include a prisoner unquestioning his wife’s highly questionable letters, while on the darker side we have a shell-shocked prisoner who no longer speaks and only finds solace playing his prized ocarina.

Fans of the original Mission Impossible series will take note of a young Peter Graves as the designated Security Officer, and future director Don Taylor among the POWs.

Watch this for the drama or watch it for the comedy, either way you will be entertained with a brilliant screenplay that straddles the dichotomy right down to the very last words.

Movie Reviews 424 – Ace in the Hole (1951)

February 14, 2020

ACE IN THE HOLE [US 1951] DIRECTED BY BILLY WILDER WITH KIRK DOUGLAS Date: 1951

When legendary actor Kirk Douglas passed away last week at the ripe old age of 103, most of the obituary notices made mention of his most famous titular role in Spartacus, the epic Stanley Kubrick film. While the film was a huge success, Douglas himself never really got the accolades and award recognition for it. At least for his work in front of the lens that is.

His real success and achievement with Spartacus was what he had done behind the scenes. As executive producer and having acquired the rights to the novel, Douglas openly hired blacklisted Dalton Trumbo to pen the script for the film, thus breaking tradition with the studios who adhered to the unwritten code banning those accused in the infamous HUAC proceedings during the McCarthy era Red Scare. This act is generally recognized as the straw that broke the camel’s back, and the success of the film forced the studios to formally recognize the blacklisted writers, most of whom were still working but using pseudonyms and ‘fronts’, and being underpaid for those efforts.

A prolific actor in both films and television, one of my favorite movies starring the charismatic dimple-chinned Douglas has always been Ace in the Hole (1951) in which he plays a newspaper reporter that crosses the line in order to advance his career.

Chuck Tatum (Douglas), a former high flying, big city reporter finds himself down on his luck, out of a job and out of money, even enough to pay for gas for his car. Stuck in remote Albuquerque, New Mexico and plumb out of options he basically begs the editor of the local paper for what he believes will be a short term stint until he gets back on his feet. But after a year of writing mundane news filler, he is at wits end, looking for that ‘big break’ that will get him back into the big league papers. As luck would have it on his way to yet another bland assignment (a rattlesnake hunt), a stop at a desert gasoline station brings news that the station owner, also a relic hunter, has just gotten himself stuck in a mountain passage after a cave in. Already smelling a scoop he is the first on the scene to venture the perilous cave path that leads to the half buried man. It is clear that a rescue will take time and equipment. Time, Chuck muses, that he alone will be in a position to scoop the story.

As soon as Chuck leaves the cave he begins scheming to retain his exclusive reporter status and to make sure that the world hears about the human interest story. He first coaxes the equally unscrupulous Sheriff to keep other reporters out of the cave, while peddling the story to all the major newspapers. As news quickly spreads, the mountainside erupts into a veritable roadside carnival – ferris wheel, barkers, treats, the whole zoo – for rubberneckers who want to savor every aspect of the rescue mission. But Chuck hits rock bottom (so to speak) realizing that the crew shoring up the cave will get to the man in a little over a day. Needing more time to raise his profile, he manages to redirect the rescue crew to dig a rescue hole from the top of the mountain instead of proceeding with the simpler approach.This method will take seven days, enough time for Chuck to punch in his ticket back to the majors and even, perhaps a Pulitzer Prize.

Despite initial assurances from the local doctor that the trapped man can last that long, his deteriorating health soon becomes a race against death. A race, Chuck realizes, that will have the eyes of the world clearly focused on him, but for the wrong reason.

A tale of selfishness taken to extremes, Chuck is not the only one looking out for himself. The trapped man’s peroxide blonde of a wife (Jan Sterling), on the cusp of leaving while her husband lay trapped, is lured back by the sudden flow of the cash register ringing at the station and manages to squeeze every last cent she can from the mass of visitors. Chuck even manages sway a budding young photographer down the path of glory over value.

While perhaps not up to par with some of director Billy Wilder greatest films (Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, and Witness for the Prosecution being just some examples), Ace in the Hole, initially released unde the title The Big Carnival, remains a noteworthy and a riveting story.

R.I.P Kirk.

Movie Reviews 413 – Sunset Boulevard (1950)

November 8, 2019

Hollywood. The place where dreams are made and just as quickly shattered. Where the mansions are enormous but are easily overshadowed by the cesspools they obscure. Marlon Brando once famously quoted “Most of the successful people in Hollywood are failures as human beings.” This damning assessment of Tinseltown is captured in Sunset Boulevard, a film noir that ends with one of the eras most iconic lines as the camera zooms in on a faded movie star.

Down to his last few dollars and without any hopeful prospects to sell any of his movie scripts, Joe Gillis (William Holden) dodges the repo men after his car by slipping into an empty garage of a run down mansion of the iconic Sunset strip. But what he initially mistakes for an abandoned abode is the home of former silent screen starlet Norma Desmod (Gloria Swanson) who at first mistakes him for the undertaker of her recently deceased pet monkey. Having clarified that idiotic notion Norma reluctantly shows the scribe a script she wrote that she hopes will be the stake for her return to the big screen.

Joe realizes the script is a disastrous mess but gives a calculated response that will ensure he can sponge off the eccentric but wealthy crone with a few days of script cleaning. Hoping for not much more that to get himself out of hock and back to a dreary, but steady job, his temporary one night stay in a room above the garage is soon a move into the plush boudoir next to Norma’s. Initially rebuffing her advances and hysterics, he soon finds himself in an uncomfortable balancing act of lover/writer just as he begins to fall for the fiance of his best friend (Nancy Olson) as she too wants both his love and his writing acumen.

Skillfully narrated by Joe’s voice-over, this brilliantly scripted film (Co-written and directed by Billy Wilder) begins with a body floating in a pool, but so mesmerizing is the underlying story that I forgot what this was slowly driving back to. The excellent performances by the main cast includes Norma’s sympathetic butler, played by former director Erich von Stroheim, who even manages to induce a bit of levity.

While the final act of Swanson swooning into the camera proclaiming “I’m ready for my close-up now Mr. Demille” is probably the most referenced scene, there are plenty of other gems such as Joe exclaiming “You were once big.” upon meeting Desmond who retorts “I AM big. It’s the films that got small.”

The special features that were included on my DVD revealed a fascinating number of parallels between the story and the cast. Swanson, like Desmond was fifty at the time of filming and was indeed a former fading star having made a single film in the preceding 15 years. Ironically, this Oscar nominated performance (as were that of all the other stars – all deserving I might add) did return her to glory. Holden was also a forgotten player whose career was not only revitalized, but was the beginning of a long and prosperous career. I’ll leave the surprise of von Stroheim’s casting to those who have not watched the film as it’s too good to spoil here.

Hollywood at its best by exposing Hollywood at its worst. Only in Tinseltown can such a self-deprecating movie become such a success.

Movie Reviews 377 – Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

January 19, 2019

Charles Laughton has always been a favorite actor of mine and I consider his portrayal of the relentless barrister in Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution as his best role.  But with such a stellar supporting cast that includes Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power and Laughton’s wife Elsa Lanchester director Billy Wilder was sure to have a hit on his hands the moment he said “Action!”

Returning to office from a recent hospitalization due to a heart attack scare Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Laughton) is being coddled by his torturous personal nurse (Lanchester) and doctors orders instruct him to stay away from any trying cases when he is presented with the odd situation of a lowly inventor (Power) being accused of murder. He fully intends to follow his medical orders as he tries to squirrel away cigars and booze from those hoping he represent the accused when the man’s very wife (Dietrich) gives the most lethargic and unconvincing alibi imaginable.

Now piqued, Robarts takes on the case and by picking apart the prosecution seems to sway the court with the help of some last minute ‘evidence’ . But his keen senses tell him that something wrong which turns out to be an understatement. Contrary to how courtroom dramas usually proceed, the verdict is not the end of the story but in a way the beginning.

This film clicks on many levels. The mystery is suspenseful not only from the point of view of whether the accused is really guilty – although the pendulum certainly begins to sway in one direction – but also the evident inconsistency in the wife’s lack of faith in her own husband. And in this one aspect the final revelation is as shocking as the truth to the murder allegation. More surprisingly, (well perhaps not as much given that this was directed by the great Billy Wilder ) this movie has some of the funniest, butting banter between Laughton and Lanchester regarding his health which begins with the very first scene to a surprising coup de grâce last line in the film.

There is some additional welcome comedy from an elderly cleaning lady (Una O’Connor) and other courtroom antics but the film is not all fun. The underlying story is built upon post war anti-German sentiment among the ruins of a bombed out Berlin tavern and the supposed murder is that of an charming innocent wealthy widow.

Known for it’s astonishing ending, one held in such high regard it warranted secrecy during filming (common today but extraordinary at the time) some have remarked that that secrecy may have even cost Dietrich an Oscar. While it did not win any Oscars it was heavily nominated at numerous ceremonies that year, so really something of a hidden gem for those focused on wins alone.

I was tempted to seek out Christie’s original version but apparently the source material was just a short story and this screened adaptation had a lot of it’s ‘meat’ added. Given the talents involved I suspect that the additions are what made this film so great.