Years ago there was this old coot who showed up AA meetings, who every time he shared mentioned having drank with William Holden. I never knew what to make of him. Was he exaggerating based on a one time encounter? Was he really old pals with Holden? Or was he totally delusional?
I decided to let my imagination run with the notion that he'd been a close confidant of the great actor, who was a known lush. Cynicism can be so boring. It being more fun to believe in Santa Claus.
Someone who clearly didn't believe in Ole Saint Nick and who positively wallowed in cynicism was J.J. Sefton, Holden's character in the Billy Wilder film, Stalag 17 (1953).
This film without Holden would be like the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s without Michael Jordan.
Stalag 17 has some serious problems -- really, the Germans didn't think to look for Lt. Dunbar in the water tower? That's both dumb and negligent. The humor lapses into farce and Neville Brand is just too over the top as a vigilante. But its a movie that many of us have visited repeatedly over the years because of Holden. (In one of their rare moments of clarity the Academy of Motion Pictures gave him the Best Actor Oscar for this performance.)
Sefton's a guy who a fellow POW says would bet on his own grandmother getting hit by a bus. That's figurative, literally he bets a couple of his fellow GIs won't make good on their escape. He wins and rakes it in. What a stinker.
But let's forget the particulars for a bit. Let's take a look at this guy. He's from Boston, sergeant in the army...No that's details of the man's life, as relevant as a social security number and about as interesting. What's so compelling about Sefton?
Okay so the guy's a schemer. Knows all the angles, how to make a buck. You just know that back in the states he'll never be a big time entrepreneur, hell, he don't even like them guys, but he'll always have plenty of dough and a gimmick to make some more.
Some folks hate our man Sefton. They see that he's a head of the game. While they're getting by as best they can, playing by the rules, on the up-and-up, Sefton's making book and making a buck. They come to him to use a telescope to watch the Russian women at the delousing station. They come to him for some nasty ass home made hooch. They come to him to lay a bet on horses races run by mice. People come to him. He doesn't go to them. Some people don't like it when there's someone who's always a step ahead. Call it envy, a form peculiar to men. And when Sefton gets a beatin' (for something not his fault) there's no whining from him about innocence, just a determination to settle the score.
Holden played other cynics (see Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Sunset Blvd. (1950)). They were rough and smart and put themselves first. If they were going to sacrifice they'd wanna know what was in it for them. When Sefton volunteers to be the hero its because he likes the odds. He'll be helping a rich guy escape and figures a nice fat reward will be his due.
Still with Holden's Sefton it's not what he does but how he does it. Rugged handsome in a way that appeals to men as well as women. He's no pretty boy. That voice. Deep and interesting. Spitting out words rapid fire but so we can understand him. Not a hint of affectation.
You don't see Sefton moving fast. But damned if you can't tell he's thinking fast. Calculating. Odds and angles and probabilities, one step ahead of all those dogfaces who do their thinking after they act.
Here's where I'm going to go with this: the man, Sefton played by Holden, has charisma. Yeah I said it. What I mean here is not the first definition about leadership, but the second one that in Miriam Webster that says: "a special magnetic charm or appeal." And how.
Watch Stalag 17 (if you have On Demand you can "demand" it through the end of next month). You'll enjoy Otto Preminger as the camp commandant, maybe. You'll enjoy Sig Ruman as Sargent Schulz, maybe. You'll enjoy some of the prisoners played by the likes of Harvey Lemback and Robert Strauss, maybe. You'll enjoy the story based on a play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski, maybe. You'll enjoy Wilder's direction, maybe. You'll love Holden as the heart and soul of this move, definitely.
Hey, maybe some day I'll claim I drank with Holden.