The following essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to The Billy Wilder Blogathon, a one-day event being hosted by Outspoken and Freckled & Once Upon a Screen in honor of the 108th birthday of the six-time Academy Award-winning writer-director-producer. For a complete list of the participating blogs and the topics/films discussed, click here.
The British Eighth Army has had their asses handed to them by the Afrika Korps, commanded by the imposing field marshal known as Erwin Rommel. Only Corporal John J. Bramble (Franchot Tone) has survived the onslaught of the Korps; he makes his way from his aimlessly drifting tank across the sand dunes to the Libyan border town of Sidi Halfaya, where he seeks refuge in a seemingly deserted hotel named The Empress of Britain. Suffering from heatstroke and dehydration, he is tended to by the inn’s employees—the owner, Farid (Akim Tamiroff), and a French chambermaid, Marie Jacques Clerc—nicknamed “Mouche” (Anne Baxter).
Bramble has picked a bad time for an extended stay—the Afrika Korps has also arrived in Sidi Halfaya, and Lieutenant Schwegler (Peter Van Eyck) is making arrangements for Rommel and his staff to enjoy Farid’s hospitality. Farid and Mouche manage to keep Bramble under out of sight from Schwegler until the corporal hits upon an idea: he’ll masquerade as Paul Davos, the hotel waiter, though Farid has already told Schwegler Davos was killed during a German air raid. The new Davos is able to convince Schwegler that he managed to dig his way out of the rubble that buried him in the cellar.
Bramble keeps up the masquerade, but takes captured British officer Fitzhume (Miles Mander) into his confidence when Fitzhume recognizes he’s not the real Davos. At a luncheon for his seized guests, Rommel cagily hints at how he’s prepared for the success of his military campaign, dropping clues about a “Professor Cronstaetter“ and a code word, “five graves.” Because he’s been ordered to move on to Cairo, Bramble/Davos has but a limited amount of time to decipher the riddle in order to pass along the information to the British command.
With accidental help from both Farid and Mouche, Bramble solves Rommel’s ingenious puzzle…and is prepared to be on his way to Cairo. But he doesn’t count on resistance from Mouche; the two of them have exchanged hostilities ever since his arrival (Mouche loathes the British, believing them to be responsible for the death of her brother at Dunkirk), with Mouche more interested in getting Schwegler’s help in releasing her other brother from a concentration camp. Because Bramble has been forced to kill the lieutenant after Schwegler discovers the real Davos’ body in the cellar, Mouche is on the horns of a dilemma—should she turn the British officer in and save her brother…or maintain her silence and save a great many more?
The Major and the Minor (1942), was so successful at the box office that pleased Paramount Pictures gave him and his writing partner Charles Brackett carte blanche to produce their own movies at the studio. The two men decided after looking through the properties owned by Paramount that they would tackle a remake of Hotel Imperial, originally a popular play written in 1917 by Lajos Biro. Because Biro had penned a number of screenplays for director Ernst Lubitsch, Billy was anxious to do the Biro material, seeing as Lubitsch was one of his particular directorial favorites. Hotel Imperial, filmed in 1927 by Mauritz Stiller (and starring silent screen legend Pola Negri), had recently been remade by Paramount in 1939 with Ray Milland and Isa Miranda after two abortive attempts with Marlene Dietrich and Margaret Sullavan.
Hotel Imperial was set in a border town between Poland and the Ukraine (now without the “the”) against the action of the First World War, so Wilder and Brackett decided to update the material to World War II and shift the events to Egypt, giving the studio a film they could promote propaganda value as well. The two men make many references to key events and battles of the WW2 era in Five Graves to Cairo (1943), and there’s a noticeable sense of awe and respect for the military genius of Rommel even though he had been soundly defeated by the time the picture was released in May of 1943. It was Wilder’s decision to cast actor-director Erich Von Stroheim in the role of the field marshal even though Von Stroheim looked almost nothing like the real-life military man. Wilder knew that “The Man You Love to Hate” would be a most imposing presence, having done outstanding work as a character actor in such films as Grand Illusion (1937) and So Ends Our Night (1941).
When director Wilder asked him why, Von Stroheim explained that if he knew the prop wasn’t functional it would have a noticeable effect on his performance—“An audience always senses whether a prop is genuine or false.” It was also on this movie that Billy had his legendary encounter with his idol, in which he met Von Stroheim in the wardrobe department on the first day of shooting on location and burbled: “This is a very big moment in my life...that I should now be directing the great Stroheim. Your problem, I guess, was that you were ten years ahead of your time.”
“Twenty,” Von Stroheim snapped in response.
Sunset Blvd., and Five Graves is a warm-up for that incredible performance. Von Stroheim’s manipulation of a riding crop in several scenes subtly parodies the stereotype of the old-time movie director, and his presence—playing the gracious host to the captured British officers, but leaving little doubt as to who is in charge—in a sequence in which he demonstrates his military objectives with salt-and-pepper cellars is quite memorable. (Von Stroheim’s Rommel cagily plays a game of “twenty questions” with his guests, managing to finesse the proceedings so that the all-important query of “where are the supplies buried in the desert to fuel his army?”…is question twenty-one.)
Man Hunt (1941). Wilder took an instant dislike to Tone, though some have speculated it might have been due to the actor’s drinking problem at the time; the director’s animosity might also have stemmed from the fact that his first choice, Cary Grant, refused the part when asked. (I’m pretty sure Grant would have been more convincing as far as the accent went.) However, Wilder thought Anne Baxter first-rate as Mouche, and the actress is quite a revelation to those who may only be familiar with her work in outings like All About Eve (1950). Her French accent is practically flawless (Baxter had previously worked with actress and legendary acting coach Maria Ouspenskaya) and she proved to be a most fitting second choice after Ingrid Bergman nixed the role.
Five Graves is a splendid second effort from the novice director, though I’ve occasionally argued that Wilder really wouldn’t hit his stride until his third film, Double Indemnity (1944). (I know there are a number of people who rhapsodize over The Major and the Minor…but I’ve always found the movie a bit creepy, to be honest.) Five Graves paired Wilder with cinematographer John F. Seitz in the first of four films—the others being Indemnity, The Lost Weekend (1945) and Sunset. (Seitz's work was among the three Oscar nominations the film received.) Five Graves is not a noir film, but utilizes the low-key, chiaroscuro lighting style, and Billy’s use of cramped interiors is also quite effective. The only time the audience gets the opportunity for some fresh air is in the opening scenes with Tone’s Bramble slogging his way through the desert; I half-expected Humphrey Bogart and Dan Duryea to pull up in their tank (little Sahara joke for those of you in the audience).
A Foreign Affair (1948) and Stalag 17 (1953); in fact, there are interesting parallels between Five Graves and Stalag—both of the protagonists are named “J.J.” and the plot, of course, centers on trapped individuals looking for a method of escape. (I also think it’s amusing that Billy used directors to play the villains—Otto Preminger, of course, plays the POW camp commandant in Stalag 17.) Five Graves appears to be the origin of a oft-used Wilder wisecrack that turns up in two subsequent films—Sabrina (1954) and One, Two, Three (1961)—“I wish I were in Hell with my back broken”…though “black pit” is substituted in this particular instance.
I don’t normally compose lists as a rule, but I’ve never been shy about my love for Billy Wilder…and would unhesitatingly put him in my top three of favorite film directors. I cheered from my sofa the night in 1993 when director Fernando Trueba acknowledged his Oscar win for Best Foreign Film (Belle Époque) by saying: “I would like to believe in God in order to thank him. But I just believe in Billy Wilder...so, thank you Mr. Wilder.” (Trueba later related that Wilder called him the next day with “Fernando? It’s God.”) Happy birthday to the one-and-only Billy Wilder—though you once famously claimed that “nobody’s perfect”…every now and then I have my doubts.