It is hard to believe that one of Wilder's earliest Hollywood efforts FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO was made in 1943. It seems to be a much later film in look, approach and concept. Yet this quite intriguing spy drama was the result of the day's headlines being utilized by Wilder for the movie's scenario. Based on Lajos Biro's play "Hotel Imperial" it was superbly written by Charles Brackett and Wilder and sharply photographed in monochrome by John Seitz. It was produced by Brackett for Paramount Pictures and was masterfully directed by Wilder.
Franchot Tone is British tank Corporal John Bramble who stumbles into a Sahara oasis hotel after crawling through the desert during the North African campaign in 1942. The Germans also arrive at virtually the same time headed by none other than the infamous German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel (Erich Von Stroheim). Rommel and his command take up residence in the hotel run by nervous local Arab Farid (Akim Tamiroff) and an attractive Alsatian maid Mouche (Anne Baxter). To conceal his identity Bramble pretends to be the hotel waiter and as such tries to find out from the formidable quest exactly where on the map the German arms dumps are located. With help from Farid and the maid and gaining Rommel's confidence he eventually acquires the information but not before Mouche sacrifices herself so that Bramble can leave and get back to the British lines.
Performances are uniformly excellent! Tone gives an engaging portrayal of a reluctant spy. Anne Baxter has rarely been better than here in the role of the ill-fated Mouche and the amusing Akim Tamiroff as the ever fearful and stammering Farid is as appealing as ever. But the picture belongs to Von Stroheim! His striking performance just steals the show. Although the actor didn't resemble Rommel in the slightest his embodiment of the character is exactly what you would imagine the great German battlefield strategist should have, perhaps, looked like. Rommel himself died in 1944. It is interesting to ponder if he ever saw the picture and what his thoughts on Von Stroheim's flamboyant portrayal of himself might have been.
Complimenting the picture throughout is the terrific score by Miklos Rozsa. Rozsa was one of Wilder's favourite composers and wrote the music for some of the director's best films like "Double Indemnity" (1944), "Lost Weekend" (1945) and "The Private Lives Of Sherlock Holmes" (1970). For FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO he wrote a spirited and heroic march to point up the British forces movements and a reflective and ravishing character theme for the maid Mouche which is given lovely renditions on solo violin.
FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO is a superb and suspenseful spy thriller set in an atmospheric war background. And thanks to the great Billy Wilder it's a great movie that simply refuses to age in its appeal.
Classic moment from FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO:
Rommel, sitting up in bed as Mouche (Anne Baxter) enters with his breakfast, "I don't like women in the morning" he declares and when she pours his coffee and with a gesture of the back of his hand he instructs her to "take two steps back please".