Walking out of the desert after his tank was destroyed and his crew killed, Cpl. J.J. Bramble (Franchot Tone) wearily stumbles into a hotel in a dusty, bombed-out town. The owner, Farid (Akim Tamiroff), and his staff of one, housekeeper Mouche (Anne Baxter), don't know what to do with him and the situation instantly escalates when a German convoy drives into town. It's an advance group of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel's headquarters looking to set up HQ as the Germans march back across Egypt, pushing the British back with ease. When Rommel's aide (Peter van Eyck) questions who the man is, Bramble poses as the hotel's waiter who was killed in the previous night's bombing.
But just looking for any shot at survival, Bramble's plan falls apart. The actual waiter, an Alsatian by the name of Paul Davos, was a German agent working as an advance scout for the German attacks. Luckily, no one knew Davos by appearance, only by reputation, so Bramble is able to play along and poses as the agent. Even Rommel (Erich von Stroheim) falls for the ruse, talking openly about his plans for an upcoming attack. But more importantly, Rommel talks about secret supply depots, the 'Five Graves,' buried deep beneath the Egyptian desert, explaining how his lines and troops are so well-supplied. But surrounded by Germans, can Bramble figure a way to get this information to the retreating Allies?
From the moment the Germans arrive, it's pretty clear who Bramble is going to have to worry about, Van eyck's German lieutenant, Schwegler. Based on a play by Lajos Biro, Wilder's story has that claustrophobic feel of being on a stage with Farid's run-down hotel substituting for that stage. Bramble is between a rock and a hard place; he can't run away, where would he go? Into the desert? If he stays, he's almost surely to be caught sooner or later. Instead, he's forced to hide in a hornets' nest of people who would shoot him as easily as snapping their fingers if they figured out his actual identity.
Wilder films these hotel scenes -- many of them at night -- in the dark and shadows where anything could be waiting to strike. This is not a large hotel with just 16 rooms so Bramble, Farid and Mouche room just a few doors down from Rommel and his staff. That does provide for some awkward moments as Bramble is a bit of a loud talker, making me question how no one heard him spouting his plans to ruin the Germans. These are some great scenes, full of foreboding and claustrophobia that Bramble is stuck in this situation with nowhere to go.
With this self-contained story -- the war somehow feels very far off even though bombs are dropping not too far away -- the characters are more archetypal than red-blooded, 3-D characters. Tone's Bramble is the stiff upper-lip British soldier who sees a chance to cripple the German war effort. Baxter's Mouche is a young French woman looking to rescue her brother from a German concentration camp and is not beneath conspiring with the Germans to get what she wants. Tamiroff's Farid is a worrier, both for his life and his hotel, and is more of a stereotype than anything but he still manages to make the character sympathetic. von Stroheim and van Eyck are perfectly cast as the intimidating Germans, and von Stroheim especially is an inspired choice to play Rommel, although he does make him a bit of an eccentric.
Released in 1943, Wilder's movie is suspiciously devoid of a propaganda, war-time message...until the end. For about 80 minutes, this is a spy story in a war setting full of tension and drama. The last 15 minutes try to deliver that ever-important message of hope to the home front. Surprisingly enough, this message works surprisingly well because of a twist revealed in these final scenes. Leave it to a pro like Wilder to make a propaganda message actually entertaining. Too often movies released in wartime sacrifice story and entertainment for delivering that message, but not Wilder, who revels in it and fits it in nicely with his script. A hidden gem from one of Hollywood's most well-known and well-respected directors.
Five Graves to Cairo <----trailer (1943): ***/****