Sunset Blvd vs. Stalag 17

Continuing with my winter project to explore the filmography of a film legend I know little about, I selected William Holden. Did you miss the review of the first pairing? You can read The Wildbunch vs. The Man from Colorado  HERE .

Arguably William Holden’s two best roles, or associations with writer and famed director Billy Wilder, the Wilder-Holden partnership was commercial gold in the 1950s with Sunset Blvd. (1950), Stalag 17 (1952), and Sabrina (1954). They would pair up one more time at the end of their careers with Fedora in 1978. Check out TCM William Holden if you are interested in learning more about his career and accomplishments.

Stalag 17 garnered Best Director, picture, and actor nominations.  He won Best Actor beating out Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift in From Here to Eternity. Sunset Blvd is the premier example of American noir; it is a dark, psychological tale of two pawns within the Hollywood machine. Silent picture great, Norma Desmond, lives in a fantasy world, a recluse who cannot let go of her former self. She clings to Holden’s character, Joe Gillis, a desperate screenwriter on the run from loan sharks. He stumbles into Norma Desmond’s world. Like a fly in the web, he feeds the delusions of Norma and becomes her kept man.

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There is a lot of heart in the film. Director Cecil B. DeMille’s cameo in the film pays homage to the silent film era and his former diva, protecting her ego from studio actors and staff most of whom have no recollection of her. Her omnipotent servant and chauffeur is Max, who devotes his life to protect her reputation. Erich von Stroheim plays the loyal, mysterious companion. The complicated relationship between Joe and Norma is exquisite. He assumes he’s manipulating her, but in due time, it is he who has been seduced. As the narrator who speaks from the grave, he is not angry. He wants to “set the record straight” because he cares about her. The men in Norma Desmond’s life owe her everything and bend to her whims. Her mental frailty is ironic and what makes the film one-of-a-kind. Sunset Boulevard won Best Screenplay, Best Art-Direction/ Set-Direction, and Best Music. Like Tennessee William’s Blanche DuBois, there’s a universal tale of irony behind these unforgettable female characters. As the audience comes face to face with Norma Desmond at the finale, we feel pity for the star and the forgotten greats of the silent era. We are reminded that glory is brief, beauty fades, and time is often cruel.

Stalag 17 showcases William Holden as the camp hustler and suspected “stoolie” for the German officers of a POW camp where hundreds of Allied soldiers are held captive. As a girl whose three favorite shows on television were Star Trek, M*A*S*H, and Hogan’s Heroes,I realized five minutes into the film that the entertaining albeit ridiculous Hogan’s Heroes showing ingenious Allied soldiers and idiotic German officers and enlisted guards (I still quote Schultz’s “I see nothing, nothing!”) was inspired by the film.

The inspiration for 1965-71 television series, "Hogan's Heroes"
The inspiration for sixties television series, “Hogan’s Heroes”

Stalag 17 had its weaknesses. The moronic character Sgt. Stanislaus ‘Animal’ Kuzawa was over-the-top to the point of distraction. The narration was unnecessary by “Cookie”. I enjoyed watching Peter Graves and William Holden’s performance as J.J. Sefton. His sarcastic humor, cleverness, toughness amid persecution by Duke (Neville Brand) offered William Holden the chance to deliver a dimensional performance worthy of an Oscar. The combination of comedy, drama, and mystery added complexity to the film to make it interesting, although it was hard to ignore how unrealistic were the shenanigans of camp personalities. Still, there’s a charm to the film that sticks with you days after viewing. Also, I doubt Billy Wilder meant for the film to be realistic. Its silliness undermines the drama and suspense for me. Others love that element of slap-stick humor in the film. Just a little less comic relief would be all I would change.

What are you thoughts about these two Holden classics? Which do you prefer?

44 thoughts on “Sunset Blvd vs. Stalag 17

Add yours

    1. You’ve spent some time looking over past posts regarding directors from over a year ago and commenting for which I’m glad! But, my replies to them won’t go through. Let me say we agree for the most part. I’m curious which films disappointed you that Spielberg made?

      1. I like Spielberg when he is making fun movies. The only serious film of his is EMPIRE Of The Sun which is based on a true story of a young British boy who is living in Hong Kong when the Japanese take it. Separated from his family, he learns to survive in a Japanese prison camp. It is a beautiful story and Spielberg doesn’t treat the audience like dunces who have to be led to the deep meaning of the film. I especially dislike Schindler’s List, Forest Gump and Saving Private Ryan. I do like the Indiana Jones movies.

        1. I wonder why you dislike Schindler’s List, considered to be his masterpiece. Granted the film is utterly depressing, but it’s crafted so well and delivers the Jewish Holocaust in an accurate way. I love Empire of the Sun and his science fiction are my favorites. Minority Report, Close Encounters, AI, 🙂

          1. In Schindler’s List, Spe put in that hokey, manipulative scene where everything is in b&W except the little girl’s pink coat on top of a pile of others. He lacks subtlety because he doesn’t trust his audience to pick up on more subtle symbols, and he wants to force the audience into tears. Also, he can boarder on preachy because, evidently, he doesn’t trust the audience to fully understand the import of what he wishes to convey. He’s best when he wants to have fun rather than convey some message he considers sacred or profound. I love movies that deal with all aspects of life, but I don’t like when a director doesn’t trust his audiences’ ability to fathom the profundities of life without the director using manipulative devices to lead the audience by the nose to accept the meaning and the profundity of the message he espouses in the film. He also uses similar methods in Forest Gump and Saving Private Ryan which is why I am put off by them.

          2. In Schindler’s List, Spielberg includes a very hokey, manipulative scene where everything is in b&W except the little girl’s pink coat on top of a pile of others. He lacks subtlety because he doesn’t trust his audience to pick up on more subtle symbols, and he wants to force the audience into tears. Also, he can boarder on preachy because, evidently, he doesn’t trust the audience to fully understand the import of what he wishes to convey. He’s best when he wants to have fun rather than convey some message he considers sacred or profound. I love movies that deal with all aspects of life, but I don’t like when a director doesn’t trust his audiences’ ability to fathom the profundities of life without the director using manipulative devices to lead the audience by the nose to accept the meaning and the profundity of the message he espouses in the film. He also uses similar methods in Forest Gump and Saving Private Ryan which is why I am put off by them as well.

  1. Ahh, Sunset Boulevard: Scene by the pool – He told her she still looked good (?) and she said “And do you know why, because I’m happy”, while rubbing him with that towel. I LOVE that movie. I even love when she shot him-“I bought myself a gun”. I identified when Joe was talking to the guys back at the copy desk while he was sitting at a red light, trying to figure out his next move. He was having a serious conversation with people who were not there. Such a good movie. My mom used to see Bill Holden in Pasadena when they were kids taking violin lessons, my mom said he had curly blond hair back then.

    1. Hi Elva! I’m embarrassed to say it took me so long to get around to watching such a great film. How cool your Mom knew him as a boy! I loved the party for two scene. What a fantastic set and the costumes. He was gorgeous in that tux–it revealed a lot when he ran away to the apt. and came back to her after her “accident” Oh, those co-dependent relationships!

    1. I was always the tomboy–hated Barbies and would rather have climbed trees. My brother and I used to play war and pretend we were in “The Planet of the Apes”. They were fun TV shows. I’ll take strange as a compliment. 🙂

  2. Cindy, I would have to go with Stalag as the better film and not just because it was a war story. I feel the acting was far superior to the fluff of Sunset.

    1. Hi, GP. Ha ha, those might be fightin’ words for some, fluff indeed! I liked the story line in Stalag toward the last act when Holden is ostracized. Using his wits to keep himself alive and solve the mystery of who was the informant followed by the suspenseful ending–it was strong and satisfying.

  3. I have always loved “Sunset Boulevard” the best out of all the Wilder films. It has a lot of heart, and so much human truth. “The Apartment is a close second (though, it is quite different). “Stalag 17” has always been one of my least favorites (and I agree about the silly Sgt. Kuzawa). It was a bit uneven… In any case, cool article. I should siqn on more often, but I only allow myself once a month (it can be addicting). lol

    1. Glad you stopped by, AHM! I understand limiting your time, but I haven’t been able to that well. Your site is a very good one and I appreciate your intellect. Yes, the Apartment and Wilder’s subsequent partnership with Jack Lemmon deserves a post all to its own.

    1. When the film was made in 1950, imagine only two decades had passed by. It’s harder for people (myself included) to appreciate them today–hard to access, hard to give up precious time. The blogs that devote their space to the silent era really do the public a service.

  4. I prefer Stalag over Sunset. Truthfully neither film is close to my heart, but I do like Stalag. That being said, I have had the intentions of re-watching Sunset for several years now. I know it is a beloved movie but for some reason it never resonated with me. I need to give it another shot. It has been years.

    1. Oh, now that you are older and mature 😉 I bet a revisit will have you loving it. That happens all the time to me, I was simply too young to appreciate the complexities. I bet a fiver your wife will love this one. It has something for both genders–Holden’s entrapment and his narration add a lot to the film. At first of course Desmond’s melodramatic posing is laughable, but it’s intentional to show how she can’t let the silent actress go–by the end I’m weeping for her. Stalag–yes, yes, a man’s movie. It took some time for it to warm me. As for Wilder, Sunset and The Apartment reign.

      1. You know its interesting, I remember when I first saw Sunset. I was really into it but by the end I was almost annoyed by it. I just didn’t have the emotional reaction that I was expecting. But you bring up a very valid point. I was considerably younger when I saw it so the added years may change my reaction. I’m certainly open to that

  5. I love Billy WIlder, and I went through this thing about 6 years ago when I watched just about all of his films…and I have to say that Sunset Blvd. is probably one of the greatest movies of all time…and Stalag 17 is possibly his worst film. It’s just so…sitcom. I felt like I was watching a rejected episode of M*A*S*H. Sunset Blvd. has so much depth and grit and realism and sharp provocative statements…and Stalag 17 tries to be witty and fails.

    I like what you did here though. Really nicely written article.

    1. Hi Andrew! I think Billy Wilder and Martin Scorsese are the best for depth and width of work. Sunset Blvd, is arguably one of the best films for all the reasons you say–it has completely stood the test of time and its “provocative statements” appeal today as they did 60 years ago. That’s a classic! Now with Stalag 17, today’s mind has to do a bit of altering to appreciate it. Its vacillation between comedy and suspenseful war movie had me wondering how to take it. Then, knowing what I know about POW camps, it seemed too ludicrous to take the film seriously. I do get the film’s purpose was to lighten a somber time — I think ‘Life is Beautiful’ does this brilliantly. I can say I prefer Wilder’s serious scripts over the comedic ones.

  6. I’ve only seen William Holden in Sabrina I think, but I can’t wait to see Sunset Blvd.! I might make that my February Blind Spot. From Hitchcock to Wilder, that sounds like a good plan right? 😉

  7. ‘Sunset Boulevard’ is a unique gem of a film, as you perfectly put it as being ‘one of a kind’.
    I haven’t seen ‘Stalag 17’. I’ve seen like a couple of episodes of ‘Hogan’s Heroes’. So this movie inspired the series. Watched ‘Star Trek’ as a child, vague memory. MASH, seen from here and there. Am not a great fan of the movie, ‘From Here to Eternity’, and haven’t seen ‘Fedora’ either.
    ‘Sabrina’ I absolutely love. Of Course!! 😉

  8. Hi, Cindy:

    An intriguing choice between two of Mr. Holden’s more memorable roles! 🙂

    For overall sometimes creepy story telling and poking a finger in the eye of the Hollywood System of its day. ‘Sunset Boulevard’ reigns supreme with Holden as the prototype “Boy Toy” for often over the top Gloria Swanson.

    I still cover my eyes in the Home theater scene. As Holden displays deeper range than his Sgt. Sefton in ‘Stalag 17’. A film much more memorable for its live stage adaptation, sets and superior supporting cast. Two prime examples. With ‘Sunset Boulevard’ emotionally coming out on top!

    If you wish to find a better, grittier and sweatier POW film. Look for ‘King Rat’. With George Segal as a deal making NCO amongst a solid British cast enduring a Burma camp. In an economical film adapted from the novel by James Clavell!

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