A comedy about a prisoner of war camp in Germany? With Nazis we can laugh at? Is this possible? Well, since nothing was impossible for director Billy Wilder, he (and co-writer Edwin Blum) took this stage play (by Donald Bevin and Edmund Trzcinski) and adapted it with comic brilliance for the screen. William Holden plays Sefton, one of the screen’s best love-to-hate-‘um/hate-to-love-‘um characters. Why does the audience feel this way about him? Well, Sefton is a curmudgeon and crook. He makes friends with the Nazis in order to get special perks. He has a foot locker filled with contra-band items that the other men would kill for. He basically is a guy who uses his time in the Army and in the prison to hone his schmoozing skills to get what he wants or needs. But, he’s funny. He’s like the class clown that you find yourself laughing with even though you think he’s distasteful and inappropriate. I like Holden and have seen most of his films. This is, in my opinion, the role Holden was born to play. He becomes Sefton…you forget that you’re watching an actor and you get caught up with the shady deals and craftiness. When the other men of Sefton’s barracks believe he is the “stooge” (or snitch) who is telling the Nazis about the escape plots, we feel sorry for him even though we are not quite sure whether we believe he’s innocent. He has proven he deals with the Nazis so maybe he is the snitch…or maybe not? Wilder’s filmmaking (along with Holden’s performance) seals this film as one of the best war films of its kind—or of any kind. Look for film director Otto Preminger as Colonel von Scherbach, who steals the few scenes he is in.

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Narrated by a dead man (something we learn right upfront), this film is one of the most biting, harsh commentaries ever filmed. Attacking Hollywood (which for a Hollywood movie is a risk) had been done before this film and has been done since but nothing packs the same kind of punch as the decline of the old, washed-up silent movie star Norma Desmond, played perfectly by another washed-up silent star Gloria Swanson. William Holden plays Joe Gillis, a down-on-his-luck screenwriter who becomes Ms. Desmond’s personal screenwriter and “companion.” Director Billy Wilder uses the screen here to make a film as dark and dismal as the plot…and this only enhances the story. An example would be the house Norma lives in…Wilder shoots it like a funeral home. It’s always dark and shadowy, just like Norma and her dreams of a “comeback.” There are some things in this film that seem to be just added for “dark” comic effect…like the burial of the monkey. Yes—monkey. These little oddities add to Norma’s dark and foreboding feel…she’s not only a has-been but Wilder wants us to also know she’s mentally unstable. Holden does a great job as the “sane” character in the film. His performance is crucial since it has to be the glue that holds all of the insanity together. But, it also has to be strong since we know he’s a doomed man. After all…it is his character floating in the pool, dead, at the beginning of the film…

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I remember how excited I was when I got to this one during my “in order” Hitchcock phase as a child. Coming right between Rear Window (1954) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), and the same year as To Catch a Thief, this one would have to be great, right? Well, to a 10-year-old, it was…for lack of a better term, boring. Why? Because it is a dark comedy and the humor, I guess, was over my head. I was expecting another thriller like the ones before and after it. But, instead I got a sweetly innocent story about a small New England town and a newly widowed single mother. Harry, the title character, is/was her husband and the beginning of the film shows his dead corpse lying on the grass under some autumn trees. How, why, and by whom Harry died contributes to both the story and the humor of this tale. And, watching it again as an adult, I liked it quite a bit. It’s sharp and original and clever. But, it’s not Rear Window. Hitchcock didn’t take that many chances throughout his career. He discovered early on that he was good at and liked directing thrillers so he mainly stuck to that. This is one of the few times he deviated and not only does it showcase Hitchcock’s versatility, it also proves he can poke fun at thrillers…in The Trouble with Harry murder/death is pretty dang funny!

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