Billy Wilder allows himself one cinematic coup (the tomblike armored tank slogging up and down the Sahara dunes) before outlining the North African Campaign as a bombed-out, mud-bricked desert fleapit. En route to Cairo, the Nazis set up headquarters in the hotel; Erich von Stroheim as Rommel is given riding crop and peaked cap and introduced mid-dictation, promising the Fuhrer no more parted Red Seas. The manager (Akim Tamiroff) is a timorous Egyptian buffoon until he remembers his runaway wife, for five seconds he’s Raimu. The chambermaid (Anne Baxter) is a scoffing French refugee with family in concentration camps, the panel by her bed lights up every night with German officers ringing for her services. Into this "sand trap" steps the disbanded British officer (Franchot Tone), who must keep up the charade after Rommel mistakes him for a Teutonic agent. "A familiar scene, reminiscent of bad melodrama," the Kommandant sneers of the intrigue around him, though Wilder and Charles Brackett keep the suspense (which hinges, without giving too much away, on the archeological side of espionage) consistently wry and barbed. Stroheim has the most galvanizing character, along with the best lines -- his Desert Fox is a bull-necked architect who can’t resist showing off his genius at brunch with British prisoners (a nice Grand Illusion nod). Baxter’s deal-making using her own sexuality and Fortunio Bonanova’s aria-loving Milanese general ("Can a nation that belches understand a nation that sings?") are just two examples of a directorial sensibility saucing Hollywood flag-waving with European sardonicism. Wilder would later modulate the propaganda of the closing image (military trucks departing toward clouds of black smoke) in A Foreign Affair, which surveys the aftermath in Europe and brings in the Yanks. From Lajos Biro’s play. With Peter van Eyck, Miles Mander, and Ian Keith. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce