This year instead of doing Blind Spots or other list-based viewing, I’m focusing in on completing filmographies of certain directors – some of which I’m only a few films away from completing and will probably do so pretty quickly, while others may be in progress for quite a while. I plan to do some major comprehensive posts about each one when I get finished with all their films (I’m also doing some background reading), but in the meantime I figured I’d do some posts with more informal thoughts as I work my way through these films. Since I’m eventually planning to include actors in this little completionist goal, I’ll keep track of how I’m doing on various actors’ filmographies as well. Stats! I love stats. In case you didn’t know that about me, now you do. I love stats.
Five Graves to Cairo is Billy Wilder’s third film as writer/director (his second in Hollywood), and it’s a WWII-set film that’s more of a spy thriller than an actual war film – despite being set in North Africa in the midst of Rommel’s campaign, and having Rommel as a character, there are no battle scenes in the film. (Correction: There is a montage of a battle at the very end for like twenty seconds.)
The opening shot is one of the most visually arresting in all of Wilder’s filmography – a tank rolls across the desert, up and down dunes aimlessly. Not all is right here. A soldier’s arm drapes lifelessly out of the cockpit, where several other men lie dead, one flopped forward on the steering mechanism, keeping the tank moving forward. One man stirs; this is John Bramble (Franchot Tone), who is the only survivor and is now caught behind enemy lines.
Wilder is known for his non-showy approach to visual style, keeping the camera, cinematography, and editing as unnoticeable as possible – a tendency which fit very well with studio-era Hollywood’s reliance on continuity filmmaking – but Five Graves to Cairo has a number of visual indulgences like the death tank, and a low-angle shot of Bramble in near-silhouette stumbling into a remote hotel only hours after the English abandoned it, and just before the Germans seize it. Cinematographer John F. Seitz also shot Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, and Sunset Boulevard for Wilder, and these four films are probably Wilder’s most visually stunning, and not coincidentally, most classically noir-ish in nature, so I’m sure he had a lot to do with the more striking elements of the film’s look.
Storywise, the film has some very unusual elements, especially the intense dislike the hotel maid Mouche has for the English – she’s French and feels the English abandoned the French army at Dunkirk, which is actually probably true to one degree or another (of course, they all would’ve died had they stayed, and wouldn’t have come back to fight another day). Hence she actually helps the Germans quite a bit once they arrive, though she does keep Bramble’s secret safe while he goes full spy and pretends to be the hotel’s deceased waiter who just happens to have been a German spy.
I found some of those aspects quite interesting in the film; you’d expect that a film made in 1943 would be totally gung-ho for the Allies, and while it certainly turns out that way, Mouche’s uncertainty plays a vital role. Ultimately her turn to full support of Bramble is inevitable in narrative terms, but it’s not totally believable, and neither are the shortchanged romantic ambitions tacked on for them near the end. And I love me some Anne Baxter, and she does some fine work balancing a pretty interesting character, but her French accent is ROUGH.
Also notable is the casting of Erich von Stroheim as Rommel, a bit of genius on Wilder’s part. Wilder grew up in 1920s Germany admiring von Stroheim and his maverick filmmaking, so I’m sure getting to cast him in this part felt pretty good. The way Rommel is introduced is quite striking, showing him only from behind giving his report over the radio, until he turns toward the camera just as he signs off with his name. I can only imagine it sending shivers up and down the spines of those who read daily about Rommel’s devastating exploits in North Africa in the early 1940s.
Billy Wilder (as director)
Seen: 23 out of 26 features, 3 left to see
Anne Baxter (actress)
Seen: 6 out of 61 films (maybe keeping track of this isn’t such a good idea)
I have no interest in completing Franchot Tone or Erich von Stroheim as an actor.