Set in June 1942 at the height of Rommel’s Afrika Korp successes against the British Eighth Army in North Africa, Billy Wilder’s Five Graves To Cairo was made only the following year, serving as both allied propaganda (the imagined key to victory is uncovered!), thriller, and proto-noir. With its shades of grey, compromised loyalties, and mostly nuanced performances, it is an underdog thriller that works as a companion piece to the classical wartime romance of Casablanca, which cleaned up at the Oscars in 1943.
The film, apart from its few desert exteriors, betrays its stage origins as a 1917 play by Lajos Biro that was originally filmed as Hotel Imperial in 1927. That film had been set on the border between Poland and The Ukraine. Biro had written screenplays for Ernst Lubitsch, a hero of Wilder’s, and as such he was anxious to update and use some of his material. Wilder however, knows how to crank up the suspense and intrigue, and leaven with some deathly wit.
After a devastating tank battle in the Libyan desert, sole British survivor Corporal John Bramble (Franchot Tone) stumbles from his trundling wreck to the dusty town of Sidi Halfaya, where he holes up in the blitzed, deserted hotel The Empress Of Britain. There he is tended to by sympathetic owner Farid (Akim Tamiroff) and a not-so-welcoming at first chambermaid Marie Jacques Clerc, or “Mouche” (Anne Baxter). Mouche resents the Brits for seemingly abandoning the French, and her brother, at Dunkirk.
When the Afrika Korp roll into town, Lt Schwegler (Peter Van Eyck) commanders the hotel for Rommel and his aides. Bramble masquerades as the deceased waiter Paul Davos, but when Rommel (Erich Von Stroheim) turns up, it transpires Davos was a Nazi spy all along (fortunately, they never met). As Rommel toys with allied officer captives around the dining table about the secret plans he laid in advance to ensure his lightning success in the desert (the Five Graves of the title), the eavesdropping Bramble determines to uncover the truth and pass word on before his alter-ego is ordered onwards by Rommel to Cairo. Meanwhile, success also hinges on whether Mouch will carry on with the charade, or turn him in for murdering the admiring Schwegler (who discovers the real Davos’ body in rubble), the man she hoped she could coerce to get her brother out of a POW camp.
Five Graves To Cairo features in the “501 Must-See Films” book I received as a Christmas present a few years back. I’d never heard of it and was later lucky enough to catch this little gem on an all too rare TV outing one weekend. At the time of the film’s release, no-one knew how Rommel was so successful until the allies defeated him (er, poor Allied leadership required a shakeup?), so the writers had free reign to come up with the central mystery. Von Stroheim’s Rommel plays a game of “twenty questions” with his guests, slyly manipulating proceedings so that the all-important query of “Where are Rommel’s fuel supplies buried?” never comes up. Although Von Stroheim bears about as much resemblance to Rommel as I do (he’d be a hell of a fit for Mussolini, with that bullet head and puffed up chest) the director / actor was known back then as “the man you love to hate” and was too good an opportunity for Wilder, who idolised him, to pass up. He’s cocky, playful, arrogant, charming and bullying in equal measure, a powerhouse who dominates proceedings. His Rommel looks immaculate as well – costume design legend Edith Head worked on the film. That arrogance trickles down to his lackeys, too: as Schwegler nastily puts it, “We’re swatting the English like flies. Soon we’ll be swatting flies like the English.”
The little band of allies in the hotel must work together for the greater good to uncover the secret and get it out in time, a dilemma that Mouch wrestles with, most especially in the space of a descent down the stairs, the camera held in close-up on the churning emotions raging behind her face. A dilemma helped immeasurably by the contrasting play of light and shadow in the cramped hotel interiors, shot in black and white (a cat and mouse chase during a bombing raid is a highlight). This was Wilder’s first collaboration with talented DoP John F. Seitz (Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, and Sunset Boulevard, for which Seitz won an Oscar). He received an oscar nomination for Five Graves, the picture also picking up nominations for editing and art direction.
As said earlier, Five Graves works as a companion piece to Casablanca – compromised heroes facing an encroaching enemy in a desert way station, torn loyalties and so on – but whereby Rick gives up his lifestyle to overcome jealousy and help Ilsa and Victor escape with the letters of transit, Mouche abandons her last vestige of hope in releasing her brother, and ultimately her life itself, to assist Bramble. The ending is a bittersweet victory, Wilder’s usual cynicism cast aside. As British tanks roll by the hotel, the returning Bramble tenderly places a parasol over Mouche’s rough grave. The “sixth” grave to Cairo.