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FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO

(1943)

Starring Eric von Stroheim, Franchot Tone, Anne Baxter; dir: Billy Wilder

 

Although characteristic Wilder astringency is in evidence here, today this second American film of his is justifiably forgotten. The Mojave-shot outdoor settings are effective but more of them would have benefited Five Graves To Cairo, which is not so much setbound as housebound and never really opens up or takes off.

The best element is a pair of scenes that are subtly linked. In the first von Stroheim (for it is always he, never ‘Rommel’) parries Frenchwoman Anne Baxter’s begging for her brother in a concentration camp by deconstructing her plea into its basic components (‘exaggeration, lies and tears’) before sniffily concluding: "melodrama". In the mirroring scene near the film’s end, as she is being accused of killing a Nazi officer, von Stroheim ruminates on her response to the charge by returning to these same terms* in their original running order, but neither repeating the word "melodrama" nor alluding to the earlier scene – a nice subtlety. Viewers are economically brought full circle into the world-weariness beneath this General’s militaristic energy.

American Franchot Tone in the role of the British spy is the major problem with Five Graves. He’s awful: holiday camp cheerful one moment, archly pompous the next. This tight, claustrophobic situation demands a dour tough guy. Stanley Baker would have killed this role, made it as edgy-dangerous as it demands to be. Tone pees it away.

The opera-obsessed Italian General (Fortunio Bonanova) amuses on a Mel Brooks level, though this caricature hasn’t aged as gracefully as the sharper cultural stereotypes in Wilder’s 1939 Ninotchka script. Perhaps in 1943 this cruder swipe struck the right note. It was the nadir of a long war, and Five Graves To Cairo deserves credit at least for striving to go beyond the genre pics of the era.

( * the exact three terms probably differ from my recollection – correction welcomed)