Film4: Monday 26 October, 3.50pm
“I’m sorry I only made one picture with Billy Wilder,” said Kirk Douglas in 1984, talking about Ace in the Hole. “I made a terrible mistake when he asked me to play in Stalag 17, which I turned down because I’d seen the play and wasn’t so impressed with it. My stupidity was in not realising what a talent like Billy Wilder would do with it. Billy is a giant.”
Wilder had chosen to make Stalag 17 after Ace in the Hole because he needed a hit and the play had just completed a long run on Broadway. For the lead role of J.J. Sefton, Wilder considered Charlton Heston before turning to his Sunset Blvd star William Holden, who didn’t want to do it. He didn’t like the character. Too selfish, he said. Paramount stepped in and held Holden to his contract. The actor’s right; Sefton is selfish.
It’s a hell of a role, though, and Kirk Douglas would’ve gobbled it up and spat it out. In the week before Christmas 1944, the American airmen in Baracke 4 suspect a spy in their midst. J.J. Sefton (Holden) is the quietly cynical sergeant arousing suspicion among his fellow American prisoners of war with his constant deal-making and aloof attitude. When two escapees are shot by the Germans, the barrack room boys assume that Holden is the informer. Wilder craftily ensures that the audience is never quite sure of the spy’s identity until near the end.
Hard to believe that this tough-minded, acerbic comedy-drama inspired such a bland TV series (Hogan’s Heroes) and easy to see why Harvey Lembeck was later cast as Phil Silvers’ finagling sidekick in Sgt Bilko. The sneering commandant is Wilder’s fellow Austrian emigré Otto Preminger, himself a director of note.
And Holden’s reward for the role he didn’t want to play? An Oscar. His speech was succinct: “Thank you.” Stalag 17 turned out to be an even bigger hit than Sunset Blvd, and Wilder expected a share of the profits. But the studio told him they’d be deducted from the losses incurred by Ace in the Hole. Which is when Wilder gave serious thought to leaving Paramount.