Stalag 17 (1953)

Well, there are just certain movies I should have reviewed by now. I’ve mentioned on multiple occasions how much I like prisoner of war movies like The Great Escape and Bridge on the River Kwai, but the first one to really put the WWII sub-genre came along in 1953, Stalag 17, a classic that doesn’t always get its due.

It’s nearing Christmas in 1944, and a breakout is planned in Stalag 17, a German prisoner of war camp deep in Germany for Allied fliers. The night of the escape, the two prisoners making the attempt are machine gunned outside the barbed wire fence, leaving the prisoners they left behind in Barracks 4 to question what’s going on. How did the Germans know details of the escape? The prisoners look to J.J. Sefton (William Holden) as the culprit, a possible stoolie who trades and bargains with the German captors for all sorts of luxuries from eggs to cigarettes to booze. Maybe Sefton has been giving away all their secrets for his own benefit, but Sefton knows otherwise. He may be a chiseler, but he’s not a traitor. The problem is simple though, he can’t prove it. Who among the other prisoners in Barracks 4 is the real culprit? He’s going to need an answer and need it quick before his bunkmates decide they’ve had enough of him for good.

From director Billy Wilder, ‘Stalag’ is a gem of a film, one of my favorites going back to when I was a kid. It was based on a Broadway play that had 472 showings over its run. The stage-based play roots are obvious, but in a good way. Filmed in a very appropriate, very effective black and white, ‘Stalag’ is set almost entirely in Barracks 4 as the story develops, Christmas approaching ever quicker. The only departures we have from the barracks are outside into the camp compound. We never leave the camp, the entire story based in Stalag 17. The crowded, claustrophobic barracks becomes another character with the bunks almost bumping into each other, the windows with the frost and ice sticking to the panes, the clothes hanging from lines hung from wall to wall. Franz Waxman‘s uncredited score is solid as well if underplayed, Johnny Coming Marching Home a key component of the story as well.

One of three nominations the movie received went to William Holden as Barracks 4 chiseler and general trouble-maker J.J. Sefton. Nominated for his part in Sunset Boulevard but not winning, Holden got a much-deserved win here, taking home the Oscar. More impressive? He was going up against Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift in From Here to Eternity. Holden brings this character to life, a less than sympathetic but still appealing individual who’s decided to make the most of his prisoner of war status. He’s going to live in comfort, and if that means dealing/trading with his German captors, then so be it. It’s not an issue until his bunkmates decide he’s the traitor giving the Germans all their secrets. This is where Holden’s acting steps up a notch, a desperate man now fighting for his survival instead of his personal comfort. Not often remembered as one of his best, but it’s a goodie.

Holden’s performance comes as part of a very solid ensemble cast that doesn’t feature a ton of A-list stars, instead turning to a group of familiar character actors. Start with Robert Strauss as Animal and Harvey Lembeck as Harry Shapiro, the barracks cut-ups, Richard Erdman as Hoffy, the barracks chief, Peter Graves as Price, barracks security, Neville Brand as Duke, the hothead, and Gil Stratton as Cookie, Sefton’s mousey assistant, and Robinson Stone, Robert Shawley, and William Pierson rounding out the bunch. Don Taylor co-stars as Lt. Dunbar, a prisoner in transit who comes under SS questioning, Jay Lawrence his impersonating, smart-mouthed traveling companion, Sgt. Bagradian. The comedy between Animal and Harry gets to be a little much at times, Bagradian’s impersonations a little forced, but as a collective whole it’s a good, strong, deep group of interesting characters.

It is hard to watch this without seeing the obvious influences some 10-plus years later with TV’s Hogan’s Heroes. Director Otto Preminger stars as Von Scherbach, the Stalag commander, an old-school German aristocrat and gentleman while Sig Ruman plays barracks guard Sgt. Schulz, a VERY obvious influence on John Banner’s famous Sgt. Schultz character in the TV show.

An episodic story that clocks in at exactly 120 minutes, there really isn’t a slow moment in Wilder’s Stalag 17. In directing his film, Wilder decided to shoot chronologically so that way the cast and crew wouldn’t know the twist — the identity of the barracks traitor — until the end of filming. The first hour or so of the movie blends the drama and comedy nicely setting up the second half of the movie. As the barracks traitor story comes to the forefront, that’s when ’17’ is at its best. The last 30 minutes are pretty perfect, Holden’s Sefton starting to piece the clues together in a great couple scenes, Wilder’s talent fully on display in shooting style, while the actual reveal and the finale are spot-on. This is a movie that doesn’t always get the recognition it deserves, but it sure deserves it. One of my favorites.

Stalag 17 (1953): ****/****

Advertisements

The Deadly Trackers (1973)

the_deadly_trackersTwo actors who were stars but never quite superstars, Richard Harris and Rod Taylor are two of my favorites. Both did a wide variety of films, but they always seemed most at home in good, old-fashioned guy’s guys movies, westerns, war movies, science fiction stories. A pairing of the duo has to be worthwhile, right? Let’s see with 1973’s The Deadly Trackers.

As the sheriff of the border town of Santa Rosa, Sean Kilpatrick (Harris) goes about his job in unique fashion. Never wearing a gun, he insists on bringing prisoners in for justice, not just shooting them on the spot. That strategy works when a gang led by murdering outlaw Frank Brand (Taylor) tries to rob the bank only to get cornered by the townspeople. Brand desperately threatens to kill a little boy, Kilpatrick’s son. In the ensuing chaos, both the boy and Kilpatrick’s wife are killed as Brand his gang escape. Vowing revenge on the men, Kilpatrick pursues the gang into Mexico, ignoring his beliefs of law and order. Always close behind Brand and his men, the revenge-seeking sheriff keeps running across a Mexican federale, Gutierrez (Al Letierri), who insists on bringing Brand in the right way, the lawful way. Kilpatrick obviously has other plans…

This little-known western was apparently beset by an avalanche of production issues. Based off a short story from Samuel Fuller, it originally had Fuller as a director with Harris and Bo Hopkins co-starring. Production started but was quickly halted to revamp…well, everything. The studio basically half-assed it from there, even borrowing portions of the musical score from 1969’s The Wild Bunch. To show you how bizarre things got, the opening credits are still frames with voiceover narration, but they look like the camera shot through a thick blanket. What happened to the footage? Apparently there was a mishap sometime after filming but before editing. You couldn’t make it up if you tried.

Ultimately, the production issues aren’t deal-breakers. Instead, it’s just the general tone of ‘Trackers’ that provides its undoing. Far from a bad movie, this is just too morbidly, cynically brutal and dark. Like so many revisionist westerns of the 1970’s, ‘Trackers’ is interested in a more honest look at the wild west. It’s bloody, sweaty, dirty and death never seems far away. There are no sympathetic characters, and it is only a matter of time before our cast of characters starts getting knocked off in gruesome fashion — scalping, trampled by horses, shot in the face, quicksand, gunned down by a flurry of shots, both blasts of a shotgun, stabbing…you get the idea — in this blood-soaked revenge western. It’s a movie in the vein of The Hunting Party, Soldier Blue, Lawman (actually pretty good), Ulzana’s Raid (also very good) and Chato’s Land but a little too uneven to be considered genuinely good.

The two leads deliver interesting performances, easily the highlight of the movie. Harris’ Kilpatrick has quite the character arc from law-and-order lawman to revenge-seeking, unhinged killer. It’s a physical performance, an intimidating performance. Not a ton of lines, just a man obsessed with the thought of brutally bringing his family’s killers to justice. Taylor plays against type in a big way — easily his most villainous, disturbing part — as Frank Brand, an outlaw and murderer who doesn’t think twice before shooting someone. Similarly unhinged, he’s an ex-Confederate soldier and a racist to boot! A villain you definitely love to hate.

In a supporting part, Lettieri gives one of his best performances, a subdued part as Gutierrez, a law-abiding peace officer who stands by his convictions through thick and thin. His conversations with Harris to provide some of the movie’s best-written scenes. As for Brand’s gang, look for Neville Brand as Choo-Choo, a bandit with part of a railroad rail for a hand (it’s kinda explained), Paul Benjamin as Jacob, a soft-spoken, educated gambler, and William Smith as Schoolboy, a mentally challenged killer with the mind of a child. Also look for Isela Vega as Brand’s former lover, Pedro Armendariz Jr. as a well-meaning blacksmith and William Bryant as one of Kilpatrick’s deputies.

Revenge stories are a staple of the western genre. A couple of those revisionist westerns I listed above are based solely on the revenge factor. Though I loved the cast here, I didn’t fall hard for the movie. You’re rooting more to see who gets killed and in what gruesome fashion. There’s not a ton of energy in the process in a rather slow-moving 110-minute movie. It’s never a good sign when horrific amounts of violence — oh, look! He’s getting scalped! — breaks up the relative monotony.

One of the most redeeming qualities in ‘Trackers’ is the filming locations in Mexico. Any western fans will see some familiar sites, including locations you would have seen in Major Dundee, The Wrath of God, Vera Cruz and (I think) Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Some of the ruins, the dusty villages, the rocky vistas, it all adds a very cool feeling of realism and authenticity. You believe the sweat you see pop up on foreheads. A mixed bag in the end. Worth a watch but keep expectations measured. The cast alone is enough to bring many viewers in.

The Deadly Trackers (1973): ** 1/2 /****

The Last Sunset (1961)

the_last_sunset_-_film_posterA Hollywood legend, Kirk Douglas wasn’t one to follow the beaten path during his career. He marched to his own drums, sticking to his beliefs and doing what he wanted, not what Hollywood necessarily wanted. Even though writer Dalton Trumbo had been blacklisted, Douglas chose Trumbo to write the screenplay for Spartacus in 1960. It started a streak of three movies where the duo worked together, continuing next a year later with 1961’s The Last Sunset.

Riding deep into the Mexican countryside, Bren O’Malley (Douglas), a gambler and gunfighter, is on the run, but he knows where he’s going. He rides to an isolated ranch where he finds a beautiful woman, Belle (Dorothy Malone), from his past. He fully intends to get back together with her…but she’s married. O’Malley isn’t alone though. A sheriff, Dana Stribling (Rock Hudson), is on his trail for a murder he’s suspected of. Stribling finally catches up with O’Malley, but the duo make an unlikely deal. Belle’s husband (Joseph Cotten) is driving a herd of cattle north to Texas. For vastly different reasons — Bren wants Belle, Dana wants justice — both men agree to help drive the herd north, their confrontation awaiting at the end of the trail. Bandits, killers, Indians and betrayals may have something to say about that.

What an odd, interesting, flawed western from director Robert Aldrich. I saw ‘Sunset’ for the last time six or seven years ago, revisiting it recently. It’s fascinating. It is a true adult western, avoiding the soap opera tendencies of so many 1950’s westerns while also avoiding going full-on dark, revisionist westerns that became prevalent late in the 1960’s and into the 1970’s. It manages to tread the fine line in between, a bit of a loner in the western genre.

Let’s talk nuts and bolts first. ‘Sunset’ is a visual stunner, filmed on-location in Mexico in the vein of Vera Cruz and The Wonderful Country. You feel like you’re there riding north with the herd through the jagged rock-covered mountains and dusty, sand-swept trails. The musical score is understated and has some cool, memorable notes here and there. Aldrich mixes it all together, using some incredibly interesting camera angles. A final shootout is clearly an inspiration for future spaghetti westerns. The visual look pulls you in from the start. As the story proves, this isn’t your typical western. The camerawork and film techniques are just the start.

When I say a ‘true adult western,’ I’m not saying pornographic. I mean adult issues, no-holds barred, no joking around. There is no comic relief, just major personal issues, history and hidden agendas anywhere and everywhere. Its main proponent? The unlikeliest of plot devices; the love triangle! Bren wants Belle back, Belle doesn’t want anything to do with him, Dana wants justice and he wouldn’t mind getting Belle too in the process. It isn’t light and fluffy though obviously. These lives depend on the resolution. Not everyone will make it through that resolution.

The strongest aspect of ‘Sunset’ is the pairing of Douglas and Hudson as the rivals turned unlikely trail partners. Their relationship is cautious to say the least. They’ve agreed to put off their confrontation/showdown until they reach Texas…but what’s keeping your word in a life and death matter? Their scenes together crackle with a simmering intensity. You’re waiting for one or the other to pull a gun, throw a punch, make a decisive move. The key though is how the relationship develops over the course of the drive. It might seem odd where it goes, but the whole dynamic works. Throw in Malone too who more than carries her weight. Three very solid performances, even if Hudson’s Dana seems to fall in love at the drop of a hat.

Also look for Cotten in a scene-stealing (if small) part, Carol Lynley as Belle’s teenage daughter, Regis Toomey as the ranch foreman of sorts, Neville Brand, Jack Elam and James Westmoreland as three treacherous trail hands, and Adam Williams as a sneering gunfighter who knew Cotten.

How about something not often associated with the western genre? Yeah, ‘Sunset’ features a doozy of a plot twist revealed in the last 25 minutes. On second viewing, that twist seems telegraphed from a mile out, but it still doesn’t take away from the impact. Ahead of its time in the actual twist, it makes for incredibly interesting viewing as all these seemingly separate storylines and characters converge. There are some slow moments on the trail getting to that point, but this is an above-average western that deserves more notoriety, more of a reputation. Definitely worth checking out.

The Last Sunset (1961): ***/****

The Man from the Alamo (1953)

poster_of_the_movie_the_man_from_the_alamoOne of the legends of the battle of the Alamo is that late in the siege, Colonel Travis drew a line in the sand, asking the men who were willing to stay and fight to cross over the line. Supposedly, only one man chose not to, a Napoleonic veteran named Louis Rose. Did it really happen? Probably not, but it remains an enduring story almost 200 years later. The premise is certainly interesting though, and here it is, delivered with a twist, 1953’s The Man from the Alamo.

With the Mexican army surrounding the fort, the defenders of the Alamo desperately wait for reinforcements. Word has reached the defenders that raiding parties are attacking settlers and homesteads, including one area well-represented in the Alamo. A group of defenders draw straws to see who will leave the potentially doomed mission to look after the families. The one chosen? John Stroud (Glenn Ford), a tough, hard-working farmer who’s never run from a fight before but now he must. Stroud rides out of the Alamo only to find that he’s too late when he gets home. Farms and homes alike have been burned by raiding parties, but not Mexican soldiers. Instead, it is a gang of Americans who have sided with the Mexicans in hopes of acquiring land. With a stigma attached to his name, Stroud goes about exacting his revenge.

Ever since watching Disney’s Davy Crockett episodes as a kid, I’ve been hooked on the Alamo. This film effort was one that took awhile to track down, but it was worth the wait. It’s on my Alamo rotation I watched every year during the siege — Feb. 23 through March 6 — as it unfolds.

‘Man’ is an interesting entry, mostly because it uses the Alamo as a jumping off point and not an end result. The opening 15 minutes or so depict the siege, a high-walled, claustrophobic fort under heavy bombardment. We meet Crockett, Travis and Bowie briefly as we learn that time is running out on the defenders. Certain death awaits. What the opening lacks in historical accuracy, it makes up for in tension and a no-holds barred feeling. It gives you a real sense of what it must have been like to be part of the siege from the Texan perspective. A very cool intro that sets the stage nicely for the rest of the movie.

Once John leaves the Alamo, we return to a pretty standard B-western. We’ve got six-shooters and cowboys who look more appropriate for the 1870’s than 1830’s, but it’s fun. Director Budd Boetticher was still a relative unknown as he would pair up with star Randolph Scott in the coming years for his most memorable movies. ‘Man’ is solid though. It clocks in at just 79 minutes and is always on the move. Some good action, an interesting, unique story and entertaining throughout. The potential of the story — a man leaves the Alamo, mostly against his will — certainly could have been more involved, more in-depth to explore the character, but what’s here is entertaining, streamlined fun.

Glenn Ford has always been an actor I welcome when I see him in a cast listing, but one I’ve never thought of as one of my favorites either. A good actor, but he doesn’t have many classic or close classics to his name. He does what he can here as supposedly cowardly John Stroud, but the story never lets him slow down and breathe. Stroud finds out what happened to his wife and son but never gets a chance to show any frustration. He’s just immediately on the road to revenge! Not a flashy part, but a good one.

Also look for Julie Adams, Hugh O’Brian, Chill Wills (he’d star in John Wayne’s The Alamo 7 years later), Victor Jory as the villain, and Neville Brand as one of his henchmen. Marc Cavell has a solid supporting part as Carlos, a young Mexican boy who worked with his father on the Stroud farm. Even keep an eye out for Dennis Weaver as one of the Alamo defenders.

Nothing too flashy here, but a western I’ve enjoyed with repeated viewings. Especially noteworthy for its Alamo opening, ‘Man’ also features some pretty cool stunts in the finale as a gang of murderers chases across the prairie after eight wagons full of women, children, and a big old safe of gold. Worth a watch if you can track a copy down.

The Man from the Alamo (1953): ***/****