Archive for May, 2010

Stalag 17 (1953)

There are two people in this barracks who know I didn’t do it. Me and the guy that did do it. – Sefton

In the spirit of Memorial Day weekend, I thought it fitting to write about a war movie.

I’ll try not to make this post too quote-heavy but the opening narration explains the setting of this film best…

“I don’t know about you, but it always makes me sore when I see those war pictures…all about flying leathernecks and submarine patrols and frogmen and guerillas in the Philippines. What gets me is that there never w-was a movie about POWs – about prisoners of war. Now my name is Clarence Harvey Cook: They call me Cookie. I was shot down over Magdeborg, Germany back in ’43; that’s why I stammer a little once in a while. ‘Specially when I get excited. I spent two and a half years in Stalag 17. “Stalag” is the German word for prison camp and number 17 was somewhere on the Danube. There were about 40,000 POWs there, if you bothered to count the Russians, and the Poles, and the Czechs. In our compound there were about 630 of us, all American airmen, radio opreators, gunners and engineers. All sergeants. Now you put 630 sergeants together and, oh mother, you’ve got yourself a situation. There was more fireworks shooting off around that joint…take for instance the story about the spy we had in our barracks…”

At the opening of Stalag 17, two actions set the motion for the entire film. First, we witness an escape attempt by two of the men from barracks number four. Second, we meet Sefton who starts taking bets (paid for with cigarettes – the camp’s currency) whether or not the two men will even make it out of the forest…and he gives the odds to them not making it. The rest of the men don’t want to bet against their friends and they each pony up their smokes to bet that they will make it. No sooner do their cigarettes leave their pockets do they hear gunshots outside.

These events start the pattern of almost all of the events to come…Sefton has good luck while bad things keep happening to everyone else. As an audience, it’s even hard to know whether we should like Sefton or not. Clearly, he’s the star. We can tell because he gets so much attention (plus he’s played by William Holden) so we know he’s the one we’re following…but no one seems to like him very much. I’m all for rooting for the underdog – but Sefton’s not an underdog. He’s a prisoner just like all the other guys but he has a bar of soap to wash with, his clothes aren’t torn or dirty, he has a locker full of cartons of cigarettes which he only uses as money since he only smokes cigars. He even has a fresh egg for breakfast…the other’s just look on hungrily.

The narrator, Sefton’s most loyal friend, explains to us that Sefton’s just smart. He is always finding one way or another to get the others to trade him their prized cigarettes and other possessions. He runs a racetrack on Saturdays and Sundays using mice with numbers tied to their tails. He created a distillery using potato peels and charges the men per shot of the liquor…that’s only guaranteed not to make them go blind. I could go on, but I’m guessing you get the idea by now. Sefton has things the others don’t – and he doesn’t share.

The other guys don’t like Sefton but they tolerate him and accept his trades and bets…until they start associating his good fortune with their barrack’s misfortune. Little by little, they start suspecting that Sefton is trading their secrets for his comforts….like just how did he know that the escape attempt would fail so quickly or how did the guards find out about their hidden radio? It starts to seem like every time they have a secret – the guards learn about it and Sefton winds up with some new privilege.

At first, Sefton shrugs it off and chalks it up to their envy. But then their accusations get stronger and he starts defending himself. He tells them, “You put two and two together and it comes out four – only it ain’t four.” Next, they beat him and shun him – he’s alone and we still don’t know if he’s the spy or not. At first, we can’t even be sure if there is a spy – the evidence isn’t clear-cut.

But little by little, we’re let in on the secrets. I won’t ruin it for you if you’ve never seen it but even once we know what’s going on – the film continues to be very suspenseful. It’s still a story of “us” verses “them” during a war. Since the Americans are already in a prison camp, the odds are against them and survival is most definitely on the line.

This is a tense film but it has it’s moments of comedy. The men are bored and they find ways to have fun when they can. Sometimes, a few of the comedic scenes can seem a bit over the top in their silliness but I forgive that because I think the film would be too tense without them. Through all of this – whether Sefton’s the spy or not – they’re prisoners of war and we feel sympathy for all of them. Clearly, they’re cold, dirty, and poorly fed. The German camp commander is necessarily evil as one would expect.

There are many little side stories in this film. The one that gets me each time I see it is when one of the men reads a letter from his wife. She keeps repeating in the note, “you won’t believe it, but”…and we find out that someone just happened to leave a baby on her front porch, it looks remarkably like her, and she’s decided to keep it to raise as their own. The poor man for the rest of the film just keeps repeating…”I believe it.” He looks so sad – just imagine being a prisoner of war and finding out that not only did your wife have an affair but she’s had another man’s baby. He has to tell himself that her story is true or he’ll lose his mind completely.

These little side stories make the film richer. So many of the scenes take place inside the barracks – it’s cramped and it’s shot to make us feel like we’re crammed in there with them, getting to know all of the characters and their stories. When the men suspect Sefton, we feel it too. When he’s beaten – we’re conflicted….who’s side are we on?

There are many great war movies out there. I think this one is unique for its setting. Most war movies seem to be about great battles and heroic leaders and are full of shooting and bombs and action. In Stalag 17, the Americans might be in prison but they certainly didn’t give up and show themselves to be extremely resourceful. Their actions against the enemy are on a different scale but they’re still heroic.

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Shadow of a Doubt (1943)


“You think you know something, don’t you? You think you’re the clever little girl who knows something.”

Shadow of a Doubt is one of my favorite Hitchcock films. He often called it his favorite too. It’s the story of evil coming into a sweet little world that doesn’t see it coming. The two main characters emphasize this difference.

There’s Uncle Charlie and Charlotte “Charlie” Newton. Little Charlie is thrilled when she finds out her beloved Uncle is coming to visit and shake things up. She’s bored with her “average” life in her average town in her average home. Her uncle is a well-traveled business man. No one seems to know what his business is but he sure has a lot of money to throw around. When we first meet Uncle Charlie, he’s casually puffing away on a cigar while money litters the floor around him. How does he get all that money and why does he come to visit all of a sudden? Something’s just not right but we don’t know what yet.

Uncle Charlie is deliciously evil – he oozes charm but only as a means of glossing over his true nature. It takes little Charlie a while to pick up on the signals that her Uncle isn’t what she thought but when she does, she figures out his terrible secret and tries to get him to leave.

No one but little Charlie suspects – but she has to be careful because clearly her Uncle is dangerous. At the same time, she doesn’t want to turn him in because it would be better if he’d just leave. Then her mother doesn’t need to know the truth about her favorite brother and maybe she can forget about it…like a bad nightmare.

Little Charlie’s whole family is “average” and I use that word in the nicest way possible. They’re a nice family who eats dinner and attends church together – they’d never expect one of their own family members to be dangerous, let alone try to kill them. Such a shock, little Charlie knows, would be just too much for them.

So, she tries her best to outsmart her evil Uncle and get him to leave peacefully…in lies the suspense. They’re worthy opponents – and the stakes are high.

Shadow of a Doubt is an interesting film because it looks so wholesome and good. Set in beautiful Santa Rosa, California – flowers are in just about every scene as decorations in the house or outside on the trees. It looks pretty. The women are an dresses, the men are in suits. I think it’s a device used more commonly now but at the time, the idea of putting someone evil in such a sweet environment was probably much fresher and it works well. I think the point is, bad people don’t have to look like “bad guys.” Even in the nicest of places, evil can exist.

Uncle Charlie sums it up best in his snarling statement to his niece who discovered his secret…

“You’re just an ordinary littler girl living in an ordinary little town. You wake up every morning of your life and you know perfectly well that there’s nothing in the world to trouble you. You go through your ordinary little day and at night you sleep your untroubled, ordinary little sleep filled with peaceful, stupid dreams. And I brought you nightmares! Or did I, or was it a silly inexpert little lie. You live in a dream. You’re a sleepwalker, blind. How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know if you rip the fronts off houses you’d find swine? The world’s a hell. What does it matter what happens in it? Wake up, Charlie! Use your wits. Learn something.”

But Charlie’s not so ordinary – she was the smartest girl in her class at school. She may have started out wide-eyed and innocent but it doesn’t take her long to adapt and figure out how to get rid of her Uncle. She tells him, flat out and plainly…”So, go away, I’m warning you. Go away or I’ll kill you myself. See, that’s the way I feel about you.”

Uncle Charlie doesn’t take too kindly to that warning and he’s even less pleased when his niece starts falling in love with one of the detectives trying to catch him.

The ending is not as clear as it may appear. The movie has an ending – it’s not ambiguous BUT it also leaves us wondering about what else is out there that we don’t really get – just because it isn’t as it appears. It’s a little disturbing really, if you choose to dwell on it.

It’s a great movie – entertaining and suspenseful as one can expect from Sir Alfred Hitchcock. If you like his other films, you’ll probably like this one too.

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Casablanca (1942)

“I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” – Rick

First, let me start by saying – I love this movie. But, I know I’m not alone – especially when it comes to tributes and reviews. I would be in awe of anyone who could come up with something original to say about this film. I think at this point, it might be impossible. It would be hard to find a critic that hasn’t already told the rest of us how important or wonderful this film is…or I’m sure there’s a few out there who’ve focused on negative criticism for the sake of argument. Nevertheless, my round-a-bout point is: I love this movie and even though I’m not the first or last in a long line of reviewers – I want to add yet another post to the pile. This movie is great – there’s a reason why we fanatics can’t seem to shut-up about it…so, here goes…

Much has been said about the luck of Casablanca – how it wasn’t meant to be so important and how fate just seemed to work its magic when it came to the final picture – casting, screenplay, the music…all of it. But, isn’t any movie like that? I mean, I’ve never heard of a film where all decisions were final and no changes were made along the way. I think luck was on the side of Casablanca but credit must be given to the talent and thought behind it too.

Casablanca is a film full of stark opposites playing off one another. There’s good and evil and hope and despair – acts of sacrifice and acts of greed. Everyone in the film (well, except the Nazis) is stuck in a sort of purgatory – trying to get out of Casablanca or trying to make the best of it.

Casablanca is the second to last stop on the way out of Europe during World War II. Refugees pour in from all over Europe in hopes of getting the visas they need to get on the plane to Lisbon, Portugal where they can make their escape to the promise of freedom in America. We learn how hard that is to do – it takes money and most of the refugees have spent all they had just to get to Casablanca. So…as the narrator tells us…”they wait…and wait…and wait.”

In the meantime, “everybody comes to Rick’s.” Rick’s is more than a melting pot – it’s boiling. Tensions for everyone are high – our first trip to the cafe gives us a glimpse of what really goes on in there. Under-the-table dealings and bargains are taking place. One woman tries to sell her diamonds…but “diamonds are everywhere on the black market.” Another man arranges an escape for another…if the man remembers to “bring cash.” A wealthier couple is practicing their English for when they get to America. Hope and desperation are visible in everyone’s eyes.

Next we meet Rick, the “saloon-keeper.” He’s too engrossed in his game of chess, sitting alone to notice much of his surroundings…but it’s clear he’s the type to know exactly what’s going on.

I won’t go into summarizing the entire story, since it’s likely you’ve seen it…and if you haven’t I don’t want to give it all away.

What I will tell you is – we spend time getting to know Rick. He’s cynical and tough and he sticks his neck out for nobody. At least, that’s how he seems.

But Louis, the likable “poor corrupt official” suspects the truth when he tells his good friend, “My dear Ricky, I suspect under that cynical shell, you’re at heart a sentimentalist.”

You see, Rick’s not a bad guy – he does care. You’ll understand why he seems so jaded once you hear what happened with Ilsa.

In all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world…in walks Ilsa, straight from Rick’s past. We learn what happened between the two and can’t help feeling sorry for them. Clearly they love each other but can’t be together….or can they? In the end comes a choice – a big choice. Ilsa’s tired of thinking – exhausted is more like it. They’re in a tough spot and the world is crumbling around them. Rick has to make the choice for them.

The end, which you probably know – the decision is made. Like the greatest endings of all – it’s also a beginning. But I won’t give it away…just in case you’re lucky enough to see it for the first time.

Though, Casablanca is one of the best of films that gets better with each viewing. When you know the story of Rick and Ilsa, somehow it’s more moving to see their reactions when they see each other again for the first time.

Casablanca evokes emotion, you can’t just watch it neutrally – it forces you to take sides. America, around the time of the making of this film was criticized for its isolationism, much like Rick in the beginning. With all the European refugees (many of the actors were actual European refugees who escaped the terrors of Hitler and the War) – the film makes you see these people trying desperately to get to America and how much it means to them. Perhaps the most powerful scene is when Victor gets the cafe band to drown out the German’s singing their anthem with the French Anthem. Since Germany had recently invaded and occupied Paris, this is especially poignant.

This movie could have been heavy with all of it’s messages and dour situations but the script is full of some of the best lines in movie history. It’s crisp and incredibly witty. Humor punctuates the terrible circumstances.

For instance, we meet a young girl who is conflicted because she’s been offered exit visas in exchange for sex…but she’s married and is afraid and not sure if she should tell her husband or pass up the chance. But Rick saves her by letting her husband win at Roulette, chalking it up to him being “just a lucky guy.” This tense moment is eased when Rick’s bartender comically kisses Rick on the cheeks for his good deed and Rick acts annoyed…saying, “Get away from me you crazy Russian.”

Almost anytime the drama becomes tense or a tragic subject is breached, someone says something witty – and the tension is eased. It makes the movie moving and enjoyable.

And if all that isn’t enough – it’s also a beautiful film to watch. I’m glad it’s not in color – I think being in black and white is incredibly appropriate working with all the contrast in this film. It’s beautifully done – each scene could be a photograph. The smoke from the cigarettes and lights from the airport streaming into the cafe through it’s nooks and crannies casting all kinds of odd shadows, makes for some beautiful shots.

If you’ve never seen this movie, I hope you give it a chance sometime. It’s beautiful and full of action, suspense, drama and romance and a whole slew of great characters….what more could you need in a movie?

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