Double Exposure: ‘Stalag 17’ (1953)

Nova Clark

“Double Exposure” is a column dedicated to bringing attention to classic film and television of note.

“Double Exposure” is a column dedicated to bringing attention to classic film and television of note.

Not everyone is who they appear to be.

In 1940s Germany, this lesson must be harshly learned in Billy Wilder’s “Stalag 17” as American soldiers in a prisoner of war (POW) camp catch wind of a German spy hiding among them.

With the Christmas season in full swing, the occupants of a barracks are doing all they can to celebrate in the shadow of their dismal conditions and scarce belongings. All except for Sgt. J.J. Sefton (William Holden): a natural curmudgeon with an every-man-for-himself outlook.

When a new pair of soldiers joins their quarters, they are welcomed with enthusiasm, but loose lips sink ships: After one of them proudly boasts about bombing a German train, word gets out and he is held captive by the ill-willed Kommandant (Otto Preminger).

Due to Sefton’s blasé attitude and frequent trading of goods with the Germans, the other men are quick to accuse him of being the spy — but is he?

In the shuffle of a nighttime air raid drill, Sefton silently discovers who the real informer is, but it’s up to him to identify the traitor’s methods and wait for the right moment to present the evidence to his barracks mates.

Until then, a unique dose of humor-under-the-circumstances is displayed as the soldiers go about their daily lives in the prison camp, which is filled with camaraderie and a host of escape plots.

A neutral character nicknamed Cookie (Gil Stratton), who suffers from an occasional stutter, endearingly narrates the memory as a number of background POWs are introduced — such as “Hoffy” Hoffman (Richard Erdman), the levelheaded barracks chief; Duke (Neville Brand), an irritable inmate who is easily angered by Sefton’s antics; and friends Harry Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck) and Stanislaus “Animal” Kuzawa (Robert Strauss), who are humorously homesick for the women back home.

From its action-packed start to its climactic reveal, “Stalag 17” blends dark comedy and tension for a satisfyingly thrilling wartime whodunit.