'Stalag 17' a classic, but DVD extras are a bit stale
By Terry Lawson
Detroit Free Press
By Terry Lawson
While some might consider it libelous to compare Cameron Crowe's book "Conversations with Wilder" to Francois Truffaut's great film-by-film analysis "Hitchcock/Truffaut," there are decided similarities.
While Crowe's book is not as rigidly structured or as critically astute, Crowe's passion for the films of Billy Wilder is equally intense, and his admiration and enthusiasm provoke Wilder to do more than trot out the well-worn anecdotes.
It serves as an excellent introduction and overview for anyone who has not dug deeply into Wilder's films, or couldn't imagine that the man who directed "Sabrina" also made "Stalag 17," which is now on DVD in a "Special Collector's Edition" (Paramount).
One can only wish that Crowe had been prevailed upon to do the commentary. It most certainly would have been more illuminating than the one provided by a co-writer of the play from which the 1953 prison camp drama-comedy was adapted, and two of the surviving cast members.
In Crowe's book, Wilder says he "improved the play 100 percent, if I do say so myself." The biggest alteration, he says, was that in the Broadway version, Sefton (played in the film by William Holden, who won a best-actor Oscar for it), a black marketeer who lives in luxury compared to the other inmates of the German POW camp and is suspected of being a snitch, turns into a hero at the climax. Wilder, naturally, spurned that: Sefton's no spy, but while he participates in the escape plan hatched by Lt. Dunbar (Don Taylor), it is still in his own self-interest.
With the darker aspects excised, "Stalag 17" became the inspiration for the 1960s TV series "Hogan's Heroes"; to its credit, the series retained some of Wilder's sardonic style.
The upgraded "Stalag 17" also is the centerpiece of "The Billy Wilder Collection" (Paramount), a bargain if you don't own Holden's subsequent work with Wilder on the 1954 romantic comedy "Sabrina" and the special edition of Wilder's 1950 classic "Sunset Boulevard." The latter starred Holden as a reporter turned unlucky screenwriter who becomes involved with aging, deluded former screen star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson).
That film is famous for Desmond's line "I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille," an utterance that dates her stardom to the silent work of producer-director Cecil B. DeMille. His 1956 Biblical spectacle, "The Ten Commandments" receives a three-disc "50th Anniversary Collection" (Paramount) upgrade in anticipation of Easter.
This is the third DVD release of DeMille's epic telling of how Moses (Charlton Heston) defied the pharaoh (Yul Brynner) and led the Jews out of Egypt. The spectacular Technicolor restoration and 5.1 Surround sound mix appear to be identical to that in the earlier two-disc "Special Edition," and it includes the extras from that set.
The only reason to upgrade, if you own the earlier version, is the inclusion on Disc 3 of DeMille's original 1923 silent version of "The Ten Commandments." The original does not invent a relationship between Ramses (Charles de Rochefort) and Moses (Theodore Roberts), and begins with the plagues. It does include the big moments, notably the parting of the Red Sea. Like some other scenes, that was hand-tinted to achieve an early version of Technicolor.
Its biggest difference, however, is that the story of Moses is combined with a contemporary story, set in 1920s San Francisco, that illustrates how the commandments are kept — and broken — in everyday life.
If, like most Americans, you have no idea why Philip Seymour Hoffman was the runaway winner of the best-actor Oscar at this year's Academy Awards, the DVD release of "Capote" (Columbia-TriStar) should explain it — even if you have little idea who the real Truman Capote was.
Director Bennett Miller (who provides commentary with Hoffman) and writer Dan Futterman do an excellent job of putting Capote in his cultural context, but the film's real purpose is to explore how Capote used his wiles on the people of Kansas and the two killers of the Clutter family to write his groundbreaking nonfiction book "In Cold Blood."
Also, you can see why Jeff Daniels deserved his best-actor Oscar nomination for playing a less-successful writer trying to cope with a divorce from Laura Linney and connect with his sons in "The Squid and the Whale" (Columbia-Tri-Star).
You can decide for yourself whether the Oscar-nominated foreign-language film "Paradise Now" (Warner) was sympathetic toward two Palestinians recruited to become suicide bombers. And you can be baffled as to why many critics jumped on the innocuous but entertaining animated family comedy "Chicken Little" (Disney) as if Chicken Little were some sort of terrorist.