Five Graves to Cairo Reviews
Every moment is tense and taut when this man is around these officers, and while Tone is not the best or most expressive actor of his time he does enough for what the role and Wilder ask of him, giving some charm and personality to a character who has to be different things at different moments. Part of it also comes from who knows what piece of information, the fact that from the start some p-eople know more than others (as, in a fantastic opening that sets much of the tone, Bramble stumbles sun-baked into the hotel after leaving his blown-apart tank, and Tamiroff and Anne Baxter have to do their best to make sure the Germans don't see him behind the bar, which does get moved mid-scene), and that there is other stakes going on, like with Baxter's man in a prison camp.
All the while, Wilder gives some wonderful scenes for Peter van Eyck, who's the Lieutenant overseeing the operation, and his commanding officer especially Erich von Stroheim. Von Stroheim is the strongest part of the film, as every time he gives this character dimension and presence, and how every line is delivered makes him a man who is clearly out to do his duty as a Nazi officer on the move towards Egypt (and those 'five graves', which becomes a plot point but isn't as important as seeing what the characters do about it), but is also a sort of a human villain, if that makes sense. I'd almost go as far as to say he makes this field Marshall cunning but also someone who you understand completely: he's doing his job the way he's been trained, and his ambition (some of his officers are astounded he wants to go as far as he plans, with salt shakers on a table demonstrating), and there's some of that same dimension he brought to Grand Illusion. We know he's the villain of the piece, but you can't take your eyes off of him from the moment he's on screen - and Wilder opens on him from behind his head giving orders!
I don't know if Tamiroff came off the best here, as he is sort of one-note through most of the run time as the nervous nellie (over?)reacting to every little or big move. And it does still operate on the wave of it being made during the war, with the side clearly drawn (though, again, the Germans are made to not be simply automatic monsters, but people you are meant to understand their motivations, cruel as they end up being, like Rommel's 'papers in triplicate' command to Anne Baxter). But aside from that, it's a generally smart and intense film that relies all on character motivation and that dialog IS the plot, in a sense here. It's a bottle-movie as about 90% of it takes place indoors, but it doesn't operate like a play, despite it being adapted from one. And the ending, or denouement I should say, packs a good emotional wallop redeeming any slow moments.
The only thing that doesn't really work are some of the broader attempts at humour - they sit and bit oddly with the dark and cynical tone of the rest of the film. Strangely overlooked effort on Billy Wilder's resume - it came just before two of his classics - Double Indemnity and Lost Weekend. I guess those had better scripts and casts, and Billy was still honing his directorial craft here - but nevertheless - the lensing is often stunning, and very clever, compared to most films of the era. And typically for him, the film is laced with dry, wry dialogue, which he captures in some nice exchanges.
Milder Wilder, but even milder Wilder is well worth it.
Five Graves to Cairo is one of his earliest films (his third feature as a director), and beside some funny moments and a really great premise is a comedy of errors - literally.
Beside the hilariously bad opening sequence with the "ghost tank" in the desert and maybe the worst staggering I've ever seen by a professional actor, the casting is slightly atrocious. Multinationality Hollywood-style: Anne Baxter (US) plays a French maid (faking a really bad accent), Franchot Tone (US) plays a British army Corporal (he doesn't even try), Erich von Stroheim (Austria) plays Erwin Rommel with a light Schwarzenegger-esque accent, furthermore we've got a Spanish as an Italian and an Armenian as a Egyptian. Lol, why not?
The film also fails in focussing on the good stuff and leaving out the goofy scenes. It doesn't get to thrilling even though there would be enough material for a serious spy film and despite some memorable one-liners, it doesn't fulfill its comedic potential either.
There are some scenes though, that show what Wilder is capable of doing. In situations of great despair and earnestness he finds the fun stuff beneath the drama, digs it out and makes us laugh - and feel kinda bad for it the next second - Wilder specialized in this kind of storytelling like no second director (Lubitsch and in some of his films, Chaplin, came close though).
This is an early efforts of his and definitely not his best - I can't understand why Tarantino put it in his list of his favourite eleven movies of all time (which was actually the reason I was watching it).