There’s something about movies made in the 1950s that I can’t stand. The women are portrayed as dumb and the men are far too jovial. Other than Russian prisoners - who only exist to be ogled by American prisoners - Stalag 17 doesn’t have any female characters. It does, however, have an entire prison barrack full of American airmen who are just a little too peppy for my tastes. Little Harry Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck) and big dumb "Animal" (Robert Strauss) typify this style. Although, there is a 5 minute long scene of the men slow dancing with each other that I think might be the weirdest scene in movie history. I appreciated that.
Prisoner of war movies often center around escape, the war existing to set up the plot. In Stalag 17 it’s the escape that exists to set up the plot. The film begins with two Americans being gunned down in an escape, their German captors lying in wait. There’s an informant in the barracks. Suspicion turns to Sefton (William Holden), a shrewd trader able to acquire amenities from German guards, often by winning cigarettes in bets with his fellow prisoners. But Sefton maintains his innocence, even after a brutal beating. The audience knows it’s too obvious. The problem is Stalag 17 doesn’t spend a lot of its time building suspense. Come on, there’s a stoolie in our midst! Sergeant Schulz (Sig Ruman) is always besting the prisoners because of some mysterious inside information, but the scenes always have a comic feel to them. The main characters, barracks leaders Hoffy (Richard Erdman), security officer Price (Peter Graves), and Duke (Neville Brand), are all upset but Schulz, Shapiro, and “Animal” always steal the mood.
The mood is too light. There’s not enough sharp-eyed suspicion. That is, until after Sefton’s beating. At this point he can no longer smugly sit on the sidelines. What’s the point, he can’t bargain for cigarettes with the men anymore. People are openly confiscating his locker of luxuries. The men didn’t like him before, but now his life may be in danger if any more airmen are killed trying to escape. It’s late in the film, but there is real suspense when Sefton hides in the barracks as Price, a German spy it turns out, meets with Schulz. For a while the audience is left wondering how Sefton will expose him. He can’t just say it. No one will believe the loner who gets gifts from German guards. But then, when the group is trying to spring an officer (Don Taylor) who will likely be executed for sabotage, that’s exactly what Sefton does. He accuses Price, and instead of punching the traitor out, the group gives him enough rope to hang Price. He gets the German to give the German time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor rather than the time in Cleveland, his supposed hometown. I had high hopes for the climax, but the way it was done was a let down.