Five Graves to Cairo (Billy Wilder / U.S., 1943):

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 or so 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 English officer (Franchot Tone) who must keep up the charade once 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 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 parading his genius to British prisoners at brunch. 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 continental sardonicism. Stalag 17 completes the Grand Illusion homage, A Foreign Affair follows the closing image (military trucks departing toward clouds of black smoke) into the European aftermath and brings in the Yanks. With Peter van Eyck, Miles Mander, and Ian Keith. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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