Review by Cullen Gallagher
Posted on 24 February 2011
Categories Brackett & Wilder
Anthony Mann brought noir to the West, and Billy Wilder brought noir to the desert. From its opening shot of a lone tank, manned by corpses, rolling across the desert, a spectral atmosphere pervades Five Graves to Cairo. Wilder’s second outing as a director in Hollywood was photographed by John F. Seitz, who had shot the monochromatic thriller This Gun For Hire two years earlier. Together, Wilder and Seitz transform the open oasis into a tenebrous maze. Sand dunes have never looked more sinister, nor has the bare sun cast so many shadows on such a barren landscape.
Defying the exotic expectations of its title, most of the film unfolds indoors, taking place in the half-bombed-out Empress of Britain hotel in Sidi Halfaya. Franchot Tone plays John J. Bramble, the sole survivor of his tank crew. After wandering delirious through the desert, he takes refuge at the Empress of Britain. However, he’s not the only guest at the hotel. Shortly after his arrival, Field Marshall Rommel and his band of Nazis commandeer the hotel. Posing as a waiter, Bramble bides his time while he spies on the Field Marshall and plots his assassination.
Wilder and Charles Brackett based their script for Five Graves to Cairo on Lajos Biro’s play Színmü négy felvonásban, which had previously been filmed as Hotel Imperial by Mauritz Stiller in 1927. The film’s theatrical origins are readily apparent: the script is talky, and the choreography of the actors is stagy. What saves the film from feeling overly static is Seitz’s boldly stylistic lighting. The desert sun is filtered through latticed windows, decorative partitions, and wooden slats, producing violent streams of light that lacerate, more so than illuminate, the actors and the sets. Confined to cramped, shadowy corridors and uneven, underlit hotel rooms, the drama is tense and claustrophobic. Thin walls and close confines only intensify the characters’ paranoia, the nagging intuition that nothing they say is confidential, and that no one is who they appear to be.
Masquerades are a recurring motif in Wilder and Brackett’s films, from Claudette Colbert’s false pretense of being an heiress in Midnight to Ginger Rogers’ tweenage disguise in The Major and the Minor to the more delusional Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, a film steeped in Hollywood’s multi-layered façades. In Five Graves to Cairo, Bramble’s front as waiter Paul Davos gets tricky when he discovers that the real Davos was, in fact, a spy for Rommel. Deception is never far from sexuality in Wilder and Brackett’s scripts either, and Five Graves to Cairo is no exception. Complicating Bramble’s charade is his affection for the hotel maid, Mouche, superbly played with seductive duplicity by Anne Baxter. Mouche is torn between her affection for Bramble, her fear that his brashness will get them all killed, and the sexual game she must play with the Nazis in order to free her brother from a concentration camp. Keeping all of these façades straight is no easy task, and it leaves hotel proprietor Farid with his eyeballs spinning. Akim Tamiroff (a criminally underrated actor who was featured in several of Orson Welles’ films) plays Farid with the right amount of comic exasperation without descending to self-parody.
The grandest charade of all, however, belongs to Erich von Stroheim, whose self-consciously militaristic portrayal of Rommel is laden with perversity and sadism. Since the 1910s, von Stroheim had been the Hun Extraordinaire, with an unparalleled eye and (once the talkies hit) ear for Austro-German de rigueur. Before being reduced to a character actor, von Stroheim was one of the greatest directors of the silent era, and his penetrating gaze into the debased morals of high and low society make his films feel modern even today. Unfortunately, studios weren’t fond of his vision (or his excessive budgets), so his films were castrated, censored, and cut-up, and eventually he was barred from ever directing again. Thankfully, Wilder gave von Stroheim two of his greatest roles as an actor, first in Five Graves to Cairo and later in Sunset Boulevard. Von Stroheim’s deviancy shines in the way he delivers Brackett and Wilder’s dialogue. Consider the way he barks at Anne Baxter after being served breakfast in bed, “I don’t like women in the morning,” or the marvelous, kinky pause at the end of “We shall take that big fat cigar out of Mr. Churchill’s mouth and make him say Heil…five times!” Few actors were as adept at mining the latent innuendo in Brackett and Wilder’s scripts as von Stroheim.
The only miscasting in Five Graves to Cairo is its male lead. As Bramble, the New York-born Franchot Tone can’t sustain the British accent for long, but he manages to look dashing despite his five o’clock shadow and copious sweating. It’s unfortunate that they didn’t change Bramble’s character to be American or Canadian, or instead hire a British actor (or someone with a more convincing British accent). Rumor has it that Wilder wanted Cary Grant for Bramble, but the thought of such perfect casting will have to remain mere speculation.
When it was first released, Five Graves to Cairo was honored with three Academy Award nominations: Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration, Black-and-White (Hans Dreier, Ernst Fegté, and Bertram C. Granger), Best Cinematography, Black-and-White (John F. Seitz) and Best Film Editing (Doane Harrison). Despite these accolades, the film is one of the few of Brackett and Wilder’s never to have been released on DVD. It’s a shame, not only because it’s an early milestone in Wilder’s directorial career (marking the first collaboration with cinematographer Seitz, who would go on to shoot Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, and Sunset Boulevard), but also because it’s one of the most uniquely stylized films made about World War II.
As part of our monthly series at 92Y Tribeca in New York City, we will be screening Five Graves to Cairo on Saturday, February 23rd at 7:30PM. Please visit 92YTribeca.org for more information.
Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife1938
That Certain Age1938
Five Graves to Cairo1943
What a Life1939
Arise My Love1940
Hold Back the Dawn1941
Ball of Fire1941
The Major and the Minor1942
The Lost Weekend1945
The Emperor Waltz1948
A Foreign Affair1948