Posts Tagged ‘William Holden’

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 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 303 – The Wild Bunch (1969)

June 16, 2017

The western was once a Hollywood staple, born in the silent era at the nascence of the film industry itself, it reigned supreme along with the romance and crime mysteries from the 40’s on through the 60’s. It competed with Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon in the form of the weekly serials used to entice kids to return for Saturday matinees. Legendary stars including John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart and even director John Ford were synonymous with the format. But somewhere along the late 60’s it began to lose it’s lustre and fell out of favour, and the genre has been only sporadically revisited since.

The popularity of westerns in it’s heyday could be attributed to one factor: the promise of some action  But while those old westerns featured gunfights, showdowns and Cowboy and Indian war battles, the inflicted wounds were moderated to keep them mostly family friendly – well as family friendly as a gunshot or piercing arrow can be – bloodless and without realistic injuries. Director Sam Peckinpah changed all that with The Wild Bunch, throwing the sugar coated oaters a dose of reality.

The story is about a band of grizzled outlaws who roam along the periphery of the Mexican border as they pull their heists. The movie begins with the gang disguised in cavalry uniforms entering a small town and staging a bank robbery. But just as they are about to make their getaway they notice guns poking along the nearby rooftops. But the lawmen, forewarned and waiting for them, have not planned well. Evident that they are about to be ambushed by the waiting posse the outlaws take advantage of a badly timed celebratory parade including women and children leading right up to the bank porch. The outlaws exit the bank with guns blazing, instantly barraged by return gunfire. What follows next is a prolonged scene of frenzied carnage that leaves casualties on both sides, but mostly with the young and innocent bystanders. This opening scene clearly establishes the realism to follow.

The ragtag group of outlaws keep one step ahead of their pursuers while at the same time try to get one last good robbery with visions of a comfortable retirement dangling before them. Their trail is hindered not only by the lawmen and bounty hunters hot on their trail but also by a former gang member who got caught and coerced into cooperating with the gangs capture. Their escape plans are further complicated by the Mexican revolution, rebels, corrupt authorities in both factions, arms dealing, gang infighting and another thwarted heist.

Amid much soul searching and questioning the meaning of life, the grim outlook is inescapable leading to both desperation and eventual resignation. The gun battles are palpable and with blood red flowing freely along with bits of body and flesh. The handguns and shotguns are reinforced with a prized machine gun with becomes the centerpiece of a bloody finale. Other brutal acts which include a slit throat and a man dragged within and inch of his life are just as authentically portrayed.

The stellar cast is led by William Holden as the gang leader, Robert Ryan as the former member leading the hunt, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson and even Strother Martin as one of the feckless bounty hunters.

Not for the faint of heart, the brutality in the film still stands as a benchmark today. The film also pushes the realism and ruthless boundaries in other ways such as showing kids torturing scorpions engulfed in ants and how ragged Mexican women would prostitute themselves for a few gringo coins, subject matter that would normally be hinted at and not explicitly shown on camera.

Peckinpah would once again adopt this ultra-violence format in Straw Dogs, another film that was proved to be controversial, but just as great cinematically.