It’s smart, it’s funny, it has a touch of romance… it’s Billy Wilder & Charles Brackett’s entertaining espionage thriller set between the battle lines of the North Africa campaign. Franchot Tone must impersonate a double agent, when the command staff of General Rommel (Erich von Stroheim!) takes over a half-bombed hotel run by the forlorn Akim Tamiroff. Anne Baxter is the French maid desperate to make a deal, with whichever side will help her get what she wants. Even the title of this winner has a clever special meaning.
Five Graves to Cairo
KL Studio Classics
1943 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 96 min. / Street Date September 29, 2020 / available through Kino Lorber / 24.95
Starring: Franchot Tone, Anne Baxter, Akim Tamiroff, Erich von Stroheim, Peter van Eyck, Fortunio Bonanova.
Cinematography: John F. Seitz
Film Editor: Doane Harrison
Original Music: Miklos Rozsa
Written by Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett from a play by Lajos Biró
Produced by Charles Brackett
Directed by Billy Wilder
Here’s another fun Billy Wilder show to discover — a serious wartime drama with a clever espionage wrinkle. As with any Wilder picture, if you haven’t seen it, stop reading and make plans to find it soon.
Films signed by Billy Wilder can boast an enviable track record — just a couple of duds and an overwhelming majority of marvelous comedies and gripping dramas. To protect his screenplays Wilder jumped into an even bigger writing-directing career, staying tight with his Ninotchka co-scribe Charles Brackett. They took no chances with their first two Paramount movies. The comedy The Major and The Minor was carefully crafted as a ‘safe’ project to insure Wilder’s directing foothold. For his next three films he turned to dramatic subjects, including the Oscar-winning The Lost Weekend and his first masterpiece, the irreplaceable film noir Double Indemnity.
But first came 1943’s Five Graves to Cairo, which is far from the typical wartime morale-builder. Adapting a play to suit the topical situation, Wilder and Brackett plot their fantasy spy story about the desert war in North Africa as tightly as Wilder’s future comedy masterpieces. The show is compact, intelligent and loaded with realistic tension. Wilder wanted Cary Grant to play the top role in what might be considered an unfashionably downbeat story… in fact, Wilder would try in vain to get Grant to act for him for the next 25 years. The considerably less glamorous Franchot Tone got the job — and gives what might be the performance of his career. The entire cast is exceptional; Wilder and Brackett also score a superb ‘stunt role’ for one of Wilder’s idols, silent movie legend Erich Von Stroheim.
In the North African desert just inside Egypt, the Afrika Corps has once again routed Montgomery’s Expeditionary Force. Brit tank gunner Corporal Bramble (Franchot Tone) stumbles into isolated Sidi Halfaya and takes shelter in the bomb-damaged hotel run by Farid (Akim Tamiroff) and one chambermaid, the Parisian Mouche (Anne Baxter). The German advance swarms into the tiny rest stop, forcing Bramble to pose as the hotel’s clubfooted waiter, Paul Davos, who was buried under bomb wreckage. ‘Davos’ is accepted by the invaders. Italian General Sebastiano (Fortunio Bonanova of Kiss Me Deadly) throws mini-tantrums because the Germans stick him in a room with broken plumbing and won’t let him sing opera. Lt. Schwegler (Peter van Eyck) defies regulations to seduce Mouche with the promise that he’ll help free her brother from a prison camp.
The most important new hotel guest is none other than Field Marshall Erwin Rommel (Erich von Stroheim). Bramble then discovers that Paul Davos wasn’t just a waiter — he was a deep cover spy for the Germans, passing on intelligence when the Brits occupied the hotel. Rommel’s remarkable success against the Brits is due to a special, secret method of supplying his tanks with gasoline and ammunition. Bramble at first planned to assassinate Rommel, but now realizes that getting that secret to Cairo is much more important.
In Five Graves to Cairo Wilder concocts a slick and suspenseful bit of moviemaking, with humor, a little romance and a perfect attitude toward its subject. The movie rejects the phony pushover Nazis of escapist morale boosters like Desperate Journey. It also avoids the approach employed by Fritz Lang in Hangmen Also Die!, where Nazi occupiers are insulted as sexual perverts and syphilitics. Wilder’s Rommel and Schwegler are highly efficient soldiers, not raving ideologues. Wilder is said to have bowed to some of von Stroheim’s ideas, but the best touches appear to be part of the script. This version of Rommel is a tough, proud officer convinced of his own invincibility. Like his Prussian officer in Renoir’s Grand Illusion, Rommel extends a chivalrous hand to the British officers he’s captured.
Wilder takes pains to show that he can do more than comedy. He begins with an eerie wordless action scene: an M3 Lee tank rolls unguided through the Saharan sand dunes, like a ghost coach. The director also stages a good chase-fight during an air raid. Emulating his hero Ernst Lubitsch, Wilder has not a wasted shot or angle, nor word of dialogue. The actors are sublimated to the rigors of the storyline, which may be why Cary Grant types turned Wilder down.
Only von Stroheim is granted the liberty to ad-lib… maybe. Wilder gives him a great part. This Rommel is a Prussian throwback, but not a beast or a martinet. His authority is genuine and nothing escapes his curiosity. But he’s reasonable and thoughtful with ‘Davos,’ and not too smug when he shows off for his English captives. He’s entirely professional. The real Irwin Rommel was indeed a brilliant field commander. After the war, his role as a conspirator in the July 20 plot to assassinate Hitler was revealed, and his reputation greatly improved.
Peter van Eyck’s Lt. Schwegler is also not the typical Nazi sadist remembered from WW2 era films. He’s an efficient aide who barks orders and takes them in full obedience, when not looking for women to seduce. Van Eyck had a pretty amazing life. His wiki page connects him to Jean Ross, the model for Christopher Isherwood’s Sally Bowles character. Billy Wilder gave him his Hollywood break, initially finding him radio work. He didn’t only play German soldiers, and his standout career includes fine work in Address Unknown, The Wages of Fear, Mr. Arkadin, The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse and The Bridge at Remagen.
Franchot Tone’s most famous film is Mutiny on the Bounty but I’d call this his best performance. He cruises nicely over a line or two that’s rather over-written, something we don’t expect from Wilder and Brackett. We don’t miss the lack of a Brit accent. According to critic Joseph McBride, Anne Baxter is the film’s heroine. Her character Mouche is a daringly realistic, non-idealized creation. Desperate to save her brother, she openly offers herself to Rommel and settles for the dishonest Schwegler. Only wartime conditions would allow such a sordid premise — even the Production Code could not shut out the reality of the war.
The situation has been compared to Wilder and Diamond’s later The Apartment: Mouche compromises herself with a lecher who has no intention of keeping the bargain. Bramble’s job before the war was as an insurance clerk in a big company, just like The Apartment’s Baxter. Bramble’s first two initials are J.J., which rhymes with Baxter’s ‘C.C.’. Both Bramble and Baxter fantasize about buying bowler hats. The finish is both realistically pitiless and Lubitsch-bittersweet. Critics would later brand Wilder as cynical, but he’s really a soured romantic. He patterned his style partly after his mentor Lubitsch, and may have wanted to take his movie back to ‘papa’ for approval.
I’ll not spoil Rommel’s clever scheme to supply his advancing troops. I guess that those German archeologists in 1937 had an extra agenda on their expeditions to find ‘magic’ relics for Hitler, the ones they stole from Indiana Jones. Besides providing a fanciful Sherlock Holmes- style mystery for Bramble to solve, Rommel’s scheme promotes a perfect propaganda message for the Allies in 1943. In this view of things, the early African campaign didn’t go badly because the Brits and Americans were incompetent strategists (cough, cough) but because Rommel had a big advantage. That it was all pre-prepared years in advance asserts that Hitler and Co. had a sinister blueprint for world conquest worked out in incredible detail — and a reliable crystal ball.
Other thoughts: Miklos Rozsa’s martial score is a big plus, making Five Graves to Cairo seem an extension of the Brit war entertainments made by Alexander Korda. Wilder’s film was released a few months before Zoltan Korda’s more prestigious Sahara, but they’re so different that they’re rarely compared. Editor Doane Harrison’s effective battle montage at the conclusion reminds us of Charles and Ray Eames’ precise engineering montages in Wilder’s The Spirit of St. Louis, while the reliance on a sentimental parasol mirrors that of another of Wilder’s sad heroines, Gabrielle Valladon of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Bramble’s final argument to Mouche preaches patriotic solidarity: “It’s not one brother that matters it’s a million brothers.” That’s all that needs to be said to distinguish the principled Five Graves from the faux-patriotic, pandering premise of Saving Private Ryan. Wilder manages a simple but eloquent final image, acknowledging a row of makeshift crosses in an improvised English graveyard.
The little Egyptian rest stop ‘Sidi Halfaya’ was constructed and filmed at the then-pleasant Salton Sea, Southeast of Los Angeles. The studio fabricated some rough approximations of German motorized vehicles and some outdated English tanks serve as German equipment. Wilder keeps them as far from his camera as he can. Hollywood in 1943 seems to have plenty of M3 Lee tanks available for movie work: the U.S. Army considered them death traps and replaced them as soon as they could.
Wilder was certainly lucky being at Paramount… at Warners a junior director like himself might have had to direct other people’s scripts. What could Wilder have done special with cookie-cutter movies like The Conspirators or Background to Danger? His Five Graves to Cairo stands out as superior work even now.
KL Studio Classics’ Blu-ray of Five Graves to Cairo is a smart, clean, really attractive HD encoding of this gem from smack in the middle of WW2, when things were just beginning to go well for the Allies. The disc is a big improvement over the TCM Vault Collection DVD from 2012. The image replicates John F. Seitz’s rich images — atmospheric light patterns enters the hotel through slats, lattices, blinds. The new audio fixes the older, somewhat distorted track. The loudest part of the main title is a bit clogged but the rest of the show is rich and robust. Fortunio Bonanova’s snatches of opera sound good.
The fine critic and author Joseph McBride offers a solid commentary for Five Graves, discussing some production specifics. Billy Wilder’s career in general, and especially his inspired casting of Erich von Stroheim, giving the legendary director the first of two of his best acting roles (in the sound era). In the last act McBride tries to explain that he doesn’t like the Bramble character, that he thinks he’s a rat who ran out on Mouche. I don’t think there’s much evidence for that interpretation, starting from the idea that there’s a &*@$% war on — Bramble, Mouche and Farid could be caught and shot at any time. Bramble acts on a perfectly legitimate sense of duty and commitment. Mouche is one of Wilder’s stronger, most independent woman characters. She is not forced into anything — she repeatedly makes her own decisions, for her own reasons. I find the patriotic / inspirational element to be wholly sincere and earned, something that lazier wartime dramas take for granted. Five Graves is a feel-good wartime tragedy that doesn’t cloy.
We’re given an action-oriented trailer for Five Graves and an additional stack of other Wilder trailers. Pay no attention the lousy trailer for A Foreign Affair as the movie is a must-see. It’s terrific that Kino is doing so right by these Paramount Billy Wilders — The Major and The Minor looks great and the wonderful A Foreign Affair is a welcome rescue of a neglected gem.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Five Graves to Cairo
Sound: Excellent – Minus
Supplements: Commentary by Joseph McBride; trailers.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: September 12, 2020
Text © Copyright 2020 Glenn Erickson