Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5. USA, 1943. Paramount Pictures. Screenplay by Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, based on the play by Lajos Biro. Cinematography by John F. Seitz. Produced by Charles Brackett. Music by Miklos Rozsa. Production Design by Hans Dreier, Ernst Fegte. Costume Design by Edith Head. Film Editing by Doane Harrison. Academy Awards 1943.
A British soldier (Franchot Tone, employing very little Britishness) arrives at a remote Egyptian hotel, delirious from wandering the hot desert sun, and promptly passes out. When he is conscious and his mind clears, he discovers that the building has been taken over by the “Desert Fox” Field Marshall Rommel (Erich von Stroheim) and his soldiers; thinking quickly, Tone barely manages to avoid being detected before he gets into the uniform of a waiter who died in a bombing. He uses his position as an opportunity to discover the secret location of five cargo holds of supplies for the German army (the five graves of the title) while also dealing with a persistently paranoid hotel manager (Akim Tamiroff) and a beautiful chambermaid (Anne Baxter) who hates the British for what her brother suffered in the French army. This was the second film directed by Billy Wilder in Hollywood and he already shows a smooth command of performance, photography and dialogue; if for no other reason the film is worth watching to see what a natural the man was at the job from the very beginning. The plotting is a bit too stagebound, it’s a spy film that barely goes beyond a few rooms for much of its running time, but the characters attach themselves to you easily and von Stroheim brings more than just the usual harsh accent and commanding manner that actors generally give to portrayals of Nazi menace. The ending is surprisingly moving (this was made, after all, before we knew we were going to win the war) and the whole thing looks exotic and beautiful.