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Blu-ray Review

DVD cover

Five Graves to Cairo (1943)
(2020 4K Restoration)


Starring: Franchot Tone, Anne Baxter, Akim Tamiroff and Erich von Stroheim
Distributor: Eureka Entertainment
RRP: £19.99
Certificate: PG
Release Date: 17 August 2020

I’ve always loved this film. But it puzzles me. It’s Billy Wilder’s second directorial effort (after The Major and the Minor, 1942 and a co-directing debut of The Bad Seed (Mauvaise Graine) in Germany in 1934) negotiating writer/director credit because he wanted more of a voice in how his screenplays were handled. Wilder is the original writer/director auteur before that term was imported from French critics. Welles didn’t write Kane and Hitchcock and Alma Reville only collaborated at best on their scripts. Wilder did it all, breaking Hollywood’s divide-and-conquer control freakery. One stop shopping: write, produce, direct. It’s commonplace now. He blazed the trail.

My puzzlement comes with how little this movie is even mentioned, let alone lauded and included in Wilder’s legacy. After this he would co-write (with Raymond Chandler) Double Indemnity (1944) and continue making film history for two decades. But why the consensus of silence on Five Graves to Cairo? It’s a wartime thriller laced with comedy and a powerful love story. If anyone out there can help me explain this to myself, I’d love it.

Wrapped up with this puzzle is the Anne Baxter performance. Her successes are always rattled off like a recited filmic litany: Magnificent Ambersons (1942) onward to The Razor’s Edge (1946) All About Eve (1950) I Confess (1953) and The Ten Commandments (1956) -- the latter in which she burglarizes the whole movie from Yul Brynner and Charlton Heston. We know well the consensus. But why the silence, the amnesia for her superlative work in Five Graves to Cairo? I’ve never been able to figure that one out.

Franchot Tone, (Mutiny of the Bounty, 1935 and the Bette Davis classic, Dangerous also 1935) is British Corporal Bramble, sole survivor of his Sahara desert unit after decimation by Rommel’s forces. He comes deliriously staggering into a near ghost town and its dishevelled Empress of Britain Hotel, staffed only by wily Farid (Tamiroff) and his French helper, Mouche (Baxter.) Bramble hopes to hide there until he can re-connect with his comrades. But a shift in battle brings Rommel (von Stroheim, nothing like the real Erin Rommel but who cares?) here to conscript the hotel as an improvised headquarters.

To hide Bramble means instant execution. Farid and Mouche dress him as a recently killed waiter and hold their breath. But Bramble realizes there is a secret to be had here: Rommel’s secret plan for logistically forging a path to conquering Cairo. If he can penetrate the great strategist’s mind and warn the Allies… Eisenhower and Montgomery could surely get a Lao Tzu benefit with a peekaboo into Rommel/von Stroheim’s shaved cranium. You get the picture and to reveal what the secret is would be an unforgivable spoiler. It would generate worse hate mail than talking politics and I draw a line in the sand there. To give away what happens as Mouche and Bramble fall in love would be even worse. Wilder, through the years, gave us two models of love story. This is the first appearance of a model that would appear again. To cite those titles would also be another spoiler and I won’t do that to you. The music score by Miklós Rózsa and crisp definition in wide depth of field by John F. Seitz should prepare you for any slice of reality.

This is where Eureka shines. The newly engineered 1080p image presentation on Blu-ray is nothing short of splendid. LPCM (Linear Pulse Code Modulation) upgrades the original 1943 monaural sound track into a lossless audio coding that delivers CD quality sound worthy of the High-Definition Multimedia Interface on your Blu-ray system. Film scholar Adrian Martin provides an audio commentary worthy of more than one listening. A snippet of Wilder holding forth on the film is fascinating. A Lux Radio Theatre episode with the stars seems an oddity today but its flavoured passion is fun to hear. A collector’s booklet with new material by critic/historian Richard Combs is excellent for perspective and the long view of this masterwork. There is also a period piece article, one part promo, one part informational about the working relationship of Wilder and Charles Brackett. They did thirteen screenplays together before splitting as Wilder described, “there comes a point where the match doesn’t strike a spark anymore.”

If you need any more urging to add this Blu-ray to your home entertainment archive, Eureka reminds us this is one of Quentin Tarantino’s favourite films. I can imagine Tarantino watching Cairo’s powerful denouement. Again and again. I see him standing up and moving around, talking about it. I know I do. If you need to build more shelf space, do it.


John Huff

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