Saturday 13 March 2010

Five Graves to Cairo (1943)

Director: Billy Wilder
Stars: Franchot Tone, Anne Baxter and Erich von Stroheim

In 1942 the British Eighth Army was being driven back by an ascendant Afrika Korps under the command of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, at least for a while until El Alamein. In 1943 writer/director Billy Wilder set this film during that German ascendancy, beginning memorably in a runaway British tank populated with corpses. Only Cpl John J Bramble is alive, though not very British given that he's played by New Yorker Franchot Tone, who is otherwise more than capable. In comparison the Germans are played by Germans (or Austrians) and sound precisely how they should, something Wilder knew well being Austro-Hungarian by birth and having been a journalist and scriptwriter in Berlin. He left in 1933, the German capital hardly being a particularly safe place for a Jew after Hitler's rise to power.

Cpl Bramble manages to find his way out of the tank, then out of the desert and eventually to a remote hotel in Sidi Halfaya called the Empress of Britain, albeit not quite in his right mind, given that he's been stricken by sunstroke. It's run by an Egyptian called Farid, played by Akim Tamiroff with more than a few frayed nerves, hardly surprising given that the moment after this half crazy British soldier collapses on his floor the German high command arrives and takes over his hotel. Lt Schwegler commandeers it for Rommel himself, given that as Farid points out, it's the largest hotel between Alexandria and Bengazi. That doesn't mean it's anything but a bombed out wreck though, its sixteen rooms reduced to twelve through German bombardment and only one of its two bathrooms working. Guess which room Rommel gets.

The real reason Schwegler picks the Empress of Britain is because he knows all about it and the people who work there. He has all the details written down in his notebook because the lame Alsatian waiter called Paul Davos is really a German spy, an advance man who has used his skills for the Reich already in Danzig, Rotterdam and Athens. Now his work in British occupied Sidi Halfaya is done, they're ready to send him on to Cairo. The trigger to the plot is that Davos is really dead, buried under rubble when room 14 was blown apart by the Germans, and Bramble comes back into his right mind conveniently just in time to take his place. When he discovers that Davos was a spy he gets to become an unexpectedly important piece in a puzzle.

This could so easily have been a piece of propagandistic fluff, written and released in 1943 at the height of the Second World War. Really though, it's hardly even a war film, merely a tale of intrigue set during wartime, and the inevitable propaganda element is reserved for the finale. Almost the entire film is set within the Empress of Britain, as Bramble attempts to work out just what Davos did and what the title of the film is all about. We get plenty more hints to that during a notable dinner scene, where the arrogant Rommel plays up to his legend as a magician and entertains captured British officers by teasing them with strategic insights. He allows them twenty questions and promises that he'll be in Cairo in six days because of the preparations that the Germans made during the thirties for what they knew was coming.

Billy Wilder, one of the great Hollywood directors even though he was hardly a product of that industry, certainly knew how to tell a story, though he did have Lajos Biró's play to work from here. He began as a screenwriter in Germany in the late twenties and continued as such when he reached Hollywood. To make that achievement all the more notable, he didn't speak any English when he arrived in the States but he made the great decision to share an apartment with Peter Lorre. Lorre had been through the same thing, speaking so little English when he escaped Germany that he managed to persuade Alfred Hitchcock to cast him in a couple of English thrillers during the thirties merely through nodding a lot and laughing in the right places. He learned his lines phonetically. Wilder learned the language quickly enough to become a success in Hollywood, partnering with Charles Brackett in 1938 and turning out some notable classic comedies such as Ninotchka and Ball of Fire before becoming a director in 1942. Fortunately he didn't try to become an actor as he said much later that, 'My English is a mixture between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Archbishop Tutu.'

I couldn't help but remember my Cinematic Heaven reviews of last week when I watched this. This is a much earlier Wilder than Some Like It Hot, though while it's rather far fetched we thankfully don't have to watch Franchot Tone in drag throughout. The accents used are far better than those in All Quiet on the Western Front, no less a name than Erich von Stroheim leading the German cast as Field Marshal Rommel. Lastly Akim Tamiroff isn't hassled by a runaway toupée here as he was in Touch of Evil because he spends the entire film suitably under a fez. No, I'm not going to try to find a King Kong reference.

The cast is not a large one. Tone does a pretty decent job as the British corporal though he does so very much in the style of a Hollywood lead. It's not difficult to imagine someone like David Niven doing things rather differently. Cary Grant was Wilder's first choice but he turned the role down, along with every other part Wilder offered him in the future, even though they were friends. Tamiroff is excellent as Farid, so much so that he becomes part of the scenery and the hotel doesn't seem like the hotel without him being in frame. Even though he was a Russian of Armenian descent, he seemed to be cast as a character of a different ethnic background per movie. In his previous film he was Mexican, in his next he'd be Spanish and only a year later would play perhaps the least believable of all his ethnic roles, as Wu Lien in Dragon Seed.

Anne Baxter plays the leading lady, a French maid called Mouche who is a dangerous character with conflicting motivations. 'Since when do the British come back?' she asks Bramble after he suggests that the Germans won't be in Sidi Halfaya for long. She's bitter because they'd left her brothers on the beach at Dunkirk and she tries to play up to the German soldiers, including Rommel himself, in an attempt to elicit help to free one of them from imprisonment in Germany. Baxter was reasonably new in 1943 but had major films like Charley's Aunt and The Magnificent Ambersons behind her already. She won an Oscar three years later for The Razor's Edge, but was surprisingly only ever nominated for one other film, All About Eve. She doesn't quite engage here but she's fascinating to watch. However Simone Simon was tested and would have been perfect for the role.

Von Stroheim is more restrained than I expected but he gives an excellent showing as Rommel, albeit not as memorable as his role as Capt von Rauffenstein in Renoir's The Grand Illusion, which is referenced here. Peter van Eyck is decent as Lt Schwegler, in his biggest role up to that time, though he'd go on to films like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Longest Day and probably best of all The Wages of Fear. Coincidentally, he found a small role in The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel in 1951. Least of all in every way except his performance is Fortunio Bonanova, who plays Gen Sebastiano, an Italian general who is effectively ignored, snubbed and passed over for the entire story. 'Nobody counts the Italians,' says Rommel at one point when counting his troops. The only time anyone really acknowledges him is when he sings because the Germans don't want him to. Bonanova does his job well enough but I wouldn't wish such an ignored character on anyone.

As an early Billy Wilder film, this is proof that he understood how Hollywood worked, finding the feel of such films. It fits well with other wartime films from Casablanca to Hotel Berlin that ignored the actual fighting and merely transplanted a versatile story into a wartime setting. The mystery surrounding the title has an Indiana Jones feel to it as well. It ends up as a war story with intrigue, action and suspense, even a little bit of fighting pasted in at the end that can safely be ignored, and above all plenty of character. It's not the artistic statement that later Wilder films would be, beginning with his next one, Double Indemnity, but it's telling that he could conjure such depth into what to most directors would have been fluff. It's perhaps his truest Hollywood picture.

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