Tag Archives: Richard Erdman

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.


RELATED

Advertisements

Spider-Man: The Dragon's Challenge (1979, Don McDougall)

Some of The Dragon’s Challenge’s problems are because it’s a TV two-parter stuck together then packaged as a theatrical. An overseas theatrical, but still a theatrical feature. The action in the first half takes place in New York, with some cuts to villain Richard Erdman making plans. He needs to get a Chinese official out of the way so he can build a steel plant.

When the Chinese official (Benson Fong) heads to New York, Erdman sends touch guy Hagan Beggs after him. Better to assassinate him in New York than Hong Kong.

Except Fong’s in New York with a purpose–get help from Robert F. Simon and the Daily Bugle. Enter Nicholas Hammond and, pretty quickly, Spider-Man. Fong’s got a niece, played by Rosalind Chao, who thinks Hammond’s a coward for running off. Little does she know he’s running off to change into his Spider-Man outfit and save the day.

The second half takes place in Hong Kong. Much of it shot in Hong Kong. When the Spider-Man stuntman is dangling alongside a huge Hong Kong skyscraper, Dragon’s Challenge delivers on something it hadn’t really been serious about. Even though director McDougall is clearly thrilled to be shooting on location in Hong Kong, nothing in Lionel E. Siegel’s teleplay sets anything up for Spider-Man. It doesn’t even set anything up for Nicholas Hammond. The Hong Kong stuff is entirely about the villains hunting Hammond, Chao, and soon-to-be government witness John Milford. Until they get attacked, however, it’s a travelogue with this odd trio.

Hammond and Chao have no chemistry. It’s Hammond’s fault. He ignores Chao in the first half, then condescends in the second. It’s because he’s sweet on her, it turns out. Milford’s fine, but not any fun. The travelogue still can get away with it because it turns out they’re on location.

There’s a car chase in Hong Kong and then a helicopter chase. Oh, and a boat chase. And Spider-Man lets the bad guys get away. For maybe the second time in Dragon’s Challenge. Hammond makes some bad superhero decisions throughout.

Series regulars Chip Fields and Ellen Bry don’t get anything to do and barely make an impression. Particularly Bry. Even though she and Hammond get a very romantic setup–using New York location shots–they don’t have anything going on in Dragon’s Challenge. Mostly because Hammond’s weird subplot about Chao not liking him infests the first half. It’s silly.

Chao’s good. She’s got lousy material and no energy from Hammond but she’s a great guest star. Simon’s got some strong scenes with Fong. Beggs is a fine bad guy, even if he is an idiot who whines about his inability to plot assassinations. It’s more amusing than when Hammond mopes about Chao thinking he’s a coward. Those scenes are just awful.

Hammond’s part in Dragon’s Challenge is thin. His job is to run out and become Spider-Man then have no excuse when Spider-Man gets done so everyone is an idiot for not realizing the obvious.

It’s nice to see Fields, even if it’s only for a few scenes.

Fine editing from Erwin Dumbrille and Fred Roth.

The Dragon’s Challenge has got some decent pieces and it’s far from unbearable; it’s still closer to unbearable than any good.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Don McDougall; teleplay by Lionel E. Siegel, based on characters created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko; “The Amazing Spider-Man” created by Alvin Boretz; director of photography, Vincent A. Martinelli; edited by Erwin Dumbrille and Fred Roth; music by Dana Kaproff; produced by Siegel; aired by the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Starring Nicholas Hammond (Spider-Man / Peter Parker), Robert F. Simon (J. Jonah Jameson), Chip Fields (Rita Conway), Ellen Bry (Julie Masters), Rosalind Chao (Emily Chan), Hagan Beggs (Evans), Richard Erdman (Mr. Zeider), John Milford (Professor Roderick Dent), and Benson Fong (Min Lo Chan).


RELATED

Star in the Night (1945, Don Siegel)

Star in the Night opens with cowboys, but it’s not a cowboy story. It’s a nativity told at a roadside motel. The dialogue for the cowboys is so bad, one has to wonder if they’re just cowboy impersonators and that detail got cut.

The film proper begins when J. Carrol Naish meets up with angel-in-disguise Donald Woods. Naish is indifferent to Christmas because he thinks people are lousy. Woods disagrees, using Rosina Galli (as Naish’s wife) as an example. But once the pregnant girl goes into labor, everyone pitches in, proving Naish wrong.

Except, of course, it doesn’t. Because they’re only nice after finding out about the expectant mother. They’re perfectly terrible until they find out.

Besides the message failing, it’s generally all right. Naish and Woods are great. Virginia Sale is pretty bad, so are the cowboys.

Siegel does well except in close-ups, where he fumbles.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Don Siegel; screenplay by Saul Elkins, based on a story by Robert Finch; director of photography, Robert Burks; edited by Rex Steele; music by William Lava; produced by Gordon Hollingshead; released by Warner Bros.

Starring J. Carrol Naish (Nick Catapoli), Donald Woods (Hitchhiker), Rosina Galli (Rosa Catapoli), Anthony Caruso (José Santos), Lynn Baggett (Maria Santos), Irving Bacon (Mr. Dilson), Dick Elliott (Traveler), Claire Du Brey (Traveler’s Wife), Virginia Sale (Miss Roberts) and Richard Erdman, Johnny Miles and Cactus Mack as the three cowboys.


RELATED

Cry Danger (1951, Robert Parrish)

Cry Danger is a strange film noir… it takes place almost exclusively during the day. It also relies almost solely on humor to move itself along through the first act–not Dick Powell, who spends the whole film with a slightly bemused look on his face, but Richard Erdman. Erdman’s the whole reason to watch Cry Danger… when he’s not around, I just kept waiting for him to show up again. He never disappointed.

Erdman’s so important because Cry Danger is not a particularly involving mystery. It establishes the good guys and the bad guys very early and doesn’t do much to make things interesting between the setup and the resolution. The problem is the lack of a mystery and the foils throughout are spare. Eventually, everything comes to rest on Powell’s shoulders. He’s got to carry the movie through and, while he’s able to do it, it’s at the expense of quite a bit.

The story takes place over three or four days and is occasionally confusing–someone refers to last night and it really seemed like it should have been two nights. But these mistakes (or confounding moments) are forgivable, because Powell’s journey–even if everything is predictable–is fun to watch. Powell knows how to do these roles and he fulfills the genre requirements, but he takes it much further–his character is very likable and without that affection, it’d be hard to get through Cry Danger.

One of the more interesting elements in the film is the excessive violence. Powell beats William Conrad mercilessly twice in the film, both times probably in the second act, and I’d never seen anything like these scenes in any films of the same era. They’re almost 1994 Tarantino-esque. (So Powell turning out to be the hero, who also happens to beat people with sculptures, makes for an odd situation).

But Cry Danger (the title has nothing to do with the film) also uses another neat trick to get around not having a compelling story. A lot of the action takes place in a trailer court and something about returning to the familiar setting, along with peculiar confinement (it’s not inside and it’s open enough for the characters to move around, but it’s also set aside and closed off…), make Cry Danger an enjoyable eighty minutes.

Besides Erdman, who’s so good, and Powell, who’s sturdy and can carry this kind of film without any help, there are also some good performances from Regis Toomey and Conrad. Rhonda Fleming is underwhelming (and the film never reveals how she manages to get so fixed up while living in a trailer), but Jean Porter is kind of good. Porter’s in most of her scenes with Erdman and it’s hard to tell.

Film noirs are not supposed to get by on charm… but Cry Danger does and does so well.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Parrish; screenplay by William Bowers, based on a story by Jerome Cady; director of photography, Joseph F. Biroc; music by Paul Dunlap and Emil Newman; produced by W.R. Frank and Sam Wiesenthal; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Dick Powell (Rocky Mulloy), Rhonda Fleming (Nancy Morgan), Richard Erdman (Delong), William Conrad (Louie Castro), Regis Toomey (Cobb), Jean Porter (Darlene LaVonne), Jay Adler (Williams) and Joan Banks (Alice Fletcher).


RELATED