Tag Archives: Peter Graves

Stalag 17 (1953, Billy Wilder)

Stalag 17 opens with narration explaining the film isn’t going to be like those other WWII pictures, where the soldiers are superhuman and the film bleeds patriotism. No, Stalag 17 is going to be something different—first off, it takes place not on the battlefield, but a German prison camp. Through coincidence, the camp is entirely full of sergeants, which causes a lot of personalities butting heads (but also personalities jibing). This story—the one narrator Gil Stratton is going to tell-takes place right before Christmas 1944. The explanation of the setup is the only time the film feels like a stage adaptation; director Wilder always has filmic uses for Stratton’s narration. Even when the plot’s moving along and the structure is very play-like, it never feels like one. The setting—a barracks in the camp (Stalag 17)—is naturally confined, but never naturally stagey.

The film opens in the aftermath of a failed escape attempt. Two guys try to get out, get caught. Right after they leave, scrounger and black market entrepreneur William Holden bets against the men escaping. His barrack-mates are incensed at his bet, but think little of it until there are subsequent hints there might be a mole in the barracks. Now, the audience already knows there’s a spy because Stratton’s talking about the time they had this spy in the barracks, but it takes the characters a while to catch up. It’s a wonderful play on expectation. The film runs a couple hours and 17’s well into that second hour before there’s much about the spy hunt. Until then, the film’s mostly humor. Because even though it opens establishing the barracks “brass”—barracks boss Richard Erdman, barracks security Peter Graves, barracks tough guy Neville Brand—in conflict with Holden—all with Stratton narration—pretty soon barracks goof-balls Harvey Lembeck and Robert Strauss take… well… center stage. In the non-stagey movie. It’s around Lembeck and Strauss, at least initially, the action plays out. There’s the introduction to the barracks German guard (Sig Ruman), there’s the growing suspicions of the prisoners, there’s Otto Preminger’s camp commander, who manages to be an opportunistic, mean-spirited jackass before he’s anything else. None of the prisoners have anything like Stockholm with the Germans, but it’s clear these German soldiers aren’t the crème de la crème… starting from Preminger down. So the Preminger stuff is funny and funny in how it’s dangerous, without ever being too dangerous.

The film’s very careful about how it portrays the comedy. Lembeck and Strauss are practically a slapstick duo, but Wilder never lets it get out of hand.

Once it’s clear there’s a spy, everyone—starting with the increasingly violent Brand—suspects Holden. Top-billed Holden is simultaneously perplexed and offended, but the film doesn’t increase his time onscreen. It’s still an ensemble, Holden’s still a standout, but he doesn’t get that spotlight just yet.

Not when there are still two more characters to bring in. Don Taylor (who’s second-billed but barely in the film and crucial to the plot) and Jay Lawrence (who’s like third-to-last billed, has nothing to do with the plot, but basically has a whole character arc about being integrated into the barracks culture).

Even after everyone starts suspecting Holden, it takes a long, long time before they act. When they do, no one seems to think through the repercussions, which the script mostly avoids and otherwise just barely addresses, while the performances imply the changes. When it all does end up falling on Holden, it’s not just the plot, it’s how the film’s going to acknowledge its character arcs. They all play through Holden’s perspective, which the film has ever so gently been assuming through the second act.

Of course, then Wilder switches it up again in the third act because, even though Holden’s giving this big, great movie star performance, it’s an ensemble piece.

Wilder completely relies on Holden but is subdued when it comes to needing to rely on him. It’s really cool, how Wilder and co-screenwriter Edwin Blum do all the character arcs. Because the actors are all usually onscreen, or at least they’re all in the same location; sometimes they’re background, sometimes they’re in the main action. And their arcs keeping going throughout; doesn’t slow down for anything, not even when opportunist Preminger thinks he’s finally going to get a promotion and he starts getting more story time.

The best performances—wildly different ones—are from Holden and Strauss. Strauss goes crazy, Holden never breaks a sweat. Wilder and Strauss figure out a way for him to devour scenes whereas Holden’s almost entirely passive. And both actors have to sell those character behaviors without explored motivation. No one, not even Taylor or Lawrence, get much introduction; Stalag 17 picks up in the middle of everyone’s story. Wilder doesn’t even slow down to set up narrator Stratton, which turns out to be fine. Initially odd, but eventually obviously good.

Brand is good as Holden’s de facto nemesis. Erdman and Graves are both fine. Taylor’s good. Great small turn from William Pierson; Wilder understands how to leverage straight comedy and doesn’t shy away from it. The guys playing it straight (like Brand, Erdman, and Graves) are kind of at a disadvantage. They’re not as memorable, which works out because it’s Stratton narrating it from—presumably—the present day, so almost ten years later.

Lawrence is really funny and great at the impressions. Again, Wilder knows how to execute straight comedy and does so.

Great editing from George Tomasini, especially great photography from Ernest Laszlo.

Stalag 17 is an outstanding success and a peculiar one. Not for how it succeeds—cast, crew, script—but for how succeeding plays out on screen. It’s like Wilder had to find a way to tell the story accessibly so he makes all these wide swings and always connects. Or if it’s not him connecting it’s Holden, who takes very short, measured swings, but always connects. It’s a great picture.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Billy Wilder; screenplay by Wilder and Edwin Blum, based on the play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski; director of photography, Ernest Laszlo; edited by George Tomasini; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring William Holden (Sgt. J.J. Sefton), Neville Brand (Duke), Richard Erdman (Sgt. ‘Hoffy’ Hoffman), Peter Graves (Sgt. Frank Price), Robert Strauss (Sgt. Stanislaus ‘Animal’ Kuzawa), Harvey Lembeck (Sgt. Harry Shapiro), Don Taylor (Lt. James Dunbar), Jay Lawrence (Sgt. Bagradian), Gil Stratton (Sgt. Clarence Harvey ‘Cookie’ Cook), Sig Ruman (Sgt. Johann Sebastian Schulz), and Otto Preminger (Oberst von Scherbach).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE FOURTH GOLDEN BOY BLOGATHON HOSTED BY VIRGINIE OF THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF CINEMA, MICHAELA OF LOVE LETTERS TO OLD HOLLYWOOD, AND EMILY OF THE FLAPPER DAME.


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Encore (1951, Pat Jackson, Anthony Pelissier, and Harold French)

With the exception of some overly confident rear screen projection and a problematic middle story, Encore is an almost entirely successful anthology of three W. Somerset Maugham stories. Each story has a different director and screenwriter; otherwise the crew is the same.

Maugham introduces each story, usually saying something to mildly detract from it–he emphasizes the stories being fictionalizations of real life, which seems a tad pointless, but it’s better than when he assails one of his characters. More on that one in a bit.

The first story is an extremely dry comedy, with loafing Nigel Patrick trying to get money out of his successful older brother, played by Roland Culver. Pat Jackson directs it, T.E.B. Clarke does the script for it. Both Patrick and Culver are fantastic–Patrick’s solution to Culver not lending him money is to take menial jobs in Culver’s social circle to humiliate him. So for a while the segment is just Patrick being a perfect bastard and Culver getting more and more frustrated. The jobs are always funny–and always involve Culver’s bewildered client, Charles Victor–before it takes a very fun turn at the end.

Clarke’s script is fast and funny, Jackson’s direction is the same. Jackson lets Patrick walk off with scenes (usually over Culver–but not always) to great effect.

From that very high start, Encore immediately gets in to trouble with the second segment. It starts before the segment itself, with Maugham complaining about a woman he once didn’t like. It’s appropriate, dire forecasting.

Directed by Anthony Pelissier and written by Arthur Macrae, the second segment is about annoying cruise ship passenger Kay Walsh. No one can stand her. She’s talkative and friendly, which is obnoxious to captain Noel Purcell and ship’s doctor Ronald Squire. Lots of the complaints have to do with Walsh being a woman, which seems like lazy writing on someone’s part (Macrae’s or Maugham’s), and it reduces every character in the segment to a caricature. At the end, it turns out the caricatures were intentional so there could be a last minute reveal.

Despite the characters being astoundingly thin, the performances are all generally fine. Once she gets to do, Walsh is quite good (good enough someone should’ve rethought the adaptation of the story, as it’s no good for film). Pelissier’s direction, albeit peppered with stock footage of the ocean, the Bahamas, and so on, is quite good. He’s directing for the actors, shame the script isn’t there for them.

The final segment starts with yet another troubling introduction from Maugham. It’s going to be about dangerous stunt performers, he says, who he wishes would just do something safer.

Glynis Johns (top-billed for the whole picture) is a high diver. She dives eighty feet into five feet of water, which is covered in flames. She does it twice a night for rich diners at a Riviera resort. Husband Terence Morgan is her announcer and manager. Johns is getting sick of the life, while Morgan is negotiating longer and longer, and more and more lucrative, contracts for her. When they meet retired daredevil Mary Merrall (and her husband, Martin Miller), Johns’s crises become more immediate.

Harold French directs this segment, from a script by Eric Ambler. It’s the biggest segment–though there’s still some questionable rear screen projection on the Riveria, there’s a physical eighty-foot diving platform and a lot of sets. There’s the restaurant, there’s a casino, it’s a lot more open than either of the preceding segments. It’s not about the sets or the stunts, however, it’s all about Johns and her growing fear. About Morgan and his working class dreams. Of the three, it embraces its sentimentality the most and is the most ambitious. French and Ambler don’t have a last minute reveal or some really funny situational comedy to fall back on. They just have the actors. And the actors succeed.

Excellent performances–from Patrick, Culver, Walsh, Johns, Morgan, and Merrall–excellent direction, solid production values (excepting the problematic rear screen, of course) result in an entirely satisfactory, rather successful film.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Pat Jackson, Anthony Pelissier, and Harold French; screenplay by T.E.B. Clarke, Arthur Macrae, and Eric Ambler, based on stories by W. Somerset Maugham; director of photography, Desmond Dickinson; edited by Alfred Roome; music by Richard Addinsell; produced by Antony Darnborough; released by General Film Distributors.

Starring Nigel Patrick (Tom Ramsay), Roland Culver (George Ramsay), Charles Victor (Mr. Bateman), Peter Graves (Philip Cronshaw), Kay Walsh (Miss Molly Reid), Noel Purcell (Captain), Ronald Squire (Doctor), Jacques François (Pierre), John Horsley (Joe, Mate), Glynis Johns (Stella Cotman), Terence Morgan (Syd Cotman), Mary Merrall (Flora Penezzi), and Martin Miller (Carlo Penezzi).


Give Us the Moon (1944, Val Guest)

Even though Give Us the Moon ends up going exactly where I expected it to go, the film’s not predictable at all. It opens with Peter Graves’s post-war layabout. He was a war hero, his father (Frank Cellier) is a rich hotelier, he wants to do nothing with his life except enjoy it. Through coincidence, he meets a woman (Margaret Lockwood) who similarly wants to do nothing with her life except enjoy it–this idea of being idle following the war never gets a lot of attention, but many of the film’s characters share the thought–so Give Us the Moon will inevitably be a romantic comedy.

I mean, Lockwood’s got an assortment of fellow layabouts who provide wonderful support and she’s got an adorable, if troublesome little sister (a fantastic Jean Simmons). It’s got all the pieces for romantic comedy, only director Guest takes it in an entirely different direction. Eventually. Graves and Lockwood have immediate chemistry, which their characters recognize in one of the script’s most efficient moves, and for a while Moon stays on its predictable course.

Until Guest deviates, sort of demoting Graves from his position as protagonist, then even demoting Lockwood as his replacement. Instead, the film becomes this wonderful situational comedy involving all her sidekicks, led by Vic Oliver. Oliver’s a con artist, whether he’s trying to get a pound off would-be saviors or getting into a hotel suite, and he’s an absolute delight. The film introduces him, brings him back, starts lingering more on him and then realizes he’s the one to follow. Well, him and Simmons. She’s got a phenomenal arc, even managing to stay relevant when she’s off-screen for some of her character’s best action.

Graves is a charming lead; Lockwood gets some great material towards the beginning before joining the supporting ranks. Cellier’s good as Graves’s disappointed father and there’s wonderful support from everyone, especially Roland Culver, Eliot Makeham and Gibb McLaughlin. Guest’s direction is solid–though filming restraints are a little obvious (although it’s set after the war, Moon was made during it)–and it’s all technically fine. Maybe Phil Grindrod’s photography could be a little better, but it all works out.

It’s a delightful comedy, full of marvelous performances. It’s simultaneously fortunate and unfortunate Graves and Lockwood don’t have a better story arc. It’d be nice to have seen more of them, especially in the second half, but the film doesn’t really need them. There’s so much good stuff going on anyway; Guest’s wrangling of it all is most impressive.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Val Guest; screenplay by Guest, Caryl Brahms, S.J. Simon and Howard Irving Young, based on a novel by Brahms and Simon; director of photography, Phil Grindrod; edited by R.E. Dearing; music by Bob Busby; produced by Edward Black; released by General Film Distributors.

Starring Peter Graves (Peter Pyke), Margaret Lockwood (Nina), Vic Oliver (Sascha), Jean Simmons (Heidi), Frank Cellier (Mr. Pyke), Roland Culver (Ferdinand), Max Bacon (Jacobus), Iris Lang (Tania), George Relph (Otto), Gibb McLaughlin (Marcel) and Eliot Makeham (Dumka).


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THIS POST IS PART OF THE MARGARET LOCKWOOD CENTENNIAL BLOGATHON HOSTED BY TERENCE TOWLES CANOTE OF A SHROUD OF THOUGHTS


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Number One with a Bullet (1987, Jack Smight)

With a larger budget–and a different director–Number One with a Bullet might succeed. It’s a wry spoof of cop movies and TV shows, pairing crazy man Robert Carradine and urbane Billy Dee Williams. One has to assume Carradine’s casting against Revenge of the Nerds-type is part of the joke, but Williams seems to be there because he can do the humor straight faced. He’s essential to Bullet‘s limited success.

Most of the problems are technical. For whatever reason, even though cinematographer Álex Phillips Jr. does a wholly competent job lighting, he can’t do any of Smight’s (simple) Steadicam shots. They’re disastrous. He and Smight do come up with a very low key Los Angeles, which is rather nice.

As for Smight… one has to wonder if the lame close-ups are budgetary restrictions. He knows to hold Williams’s reaction shots though, since the length adds depth to the scene.

Carradine’s amusing and endearing, Williams is great. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is weak. Except Mykelti Williamson. He’s awesome. Even Jon Gries is tepid in his small role. Valerie Bertinelli isn’t any good as Carradine’s reluctant love interest and Doris Roberts is inexplicable as Carradine’s nagging mother. Bullet often veers into sitcom territory, only with Smight giving it a slightly more cinematic frame.

Alf Clausen’s jazz score is another of the jokes, but it’s too slow for the action sequences.

Bullet is likable and has good qualities; they don’t add up to a good movie though.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Jack Smight; screenplay by Gail Morgan Hickman, Andrew Kurtzman, Rob Riley and James Belushi, based on a story by Hickman; director of photography, Álex Phillips Jr.; edited by Michael J. Duthie; music by Alf Clausen; production designer, Norm Baron; produced by Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan; released by Cannon Films.

Starring Robert Carradine (Det. Barzak), Billy Dee Williams (Det. Hazeltine), Valerie Bertinelli (Teresa Barzak), Peter Graves (Capt. Ferris), Doris Roberts (Mrs. Barzak), Bobby Di Cicco (Malcolm), Ray Girardin (Lt. Kaminski), Barry Sattels (DeCosta), Mykelti Williamson (Casey) and Jon Gries (Bobby Sweet).


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