These notes on Billy Wilder's Five Graves to Cairo (1943) were written by Tim Brayton, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Five Graves will screen in our "Reinventing Hollywood" series on Sunday, February 11 at the Chazen Museum of Art.
By Tim Brayton
In his new book, Reinventing Hollywood, Madison's own David Bordwell singles out Five Graves to Cairo as an example of the kind of crisp, clear, straightforward narrative strategies that Hollywood screenwriters had become great at by the dawn of World War II. The film neatly introduces new conflicts and goals for the beleaguered British Cpl. John J. Bramble (Franchot Tone) reliably at breaks between each of its four acts, while pairing his plot with a well-developed B-plot for French expatriate Mouche (Anne Baxter), that both complements and contrasts with his own. Complements, because both characters after all want the same thing: to beat the Germans in the form of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (Erich von Stroheim), who has at this point in the summer of 1942 enjoyed great success in his conquest of North Africa. Contrasts, because Bramble's strategic, patriotically-minded goal is incompatible with Mouche's more direct quest for personal vengeance.
There's certainly no denying the efficiency and clarity of the script by writing partners Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder (the latter also directed, for just the second time in Hollywood). This should come as no surprise at all. By 1943, the duo had honed their skills on a full ten films, including comedy masterpieces like Ninotchka (dir. Ernst Lubitsch, 1939), Midnight, (dir. Mitchell Leisen, 1939), and Ball of Fire (dir. Howard Hawks, 1941). Five Graves to Cairo represents a major shift in tone, to be sure: prior to this, Brackett and Wilder had written only comedies or the occasional melodrama, never anything like the tense wartime thrills of this project. Still, the airtight plotting and timing demanded in comedy seems to have been an effective training ground for the very different generic requirements of this project.
Setting all that aside, as fine as the screenplay is for Five Graves to Cairo, we shouldn't allow our admiration for its narrative mechanics to get in the way of noticing that it's an equally strong representative of Hollywood filmmaking in other respects as well. The film received Oscar nominations for its cinematography, art direction, and editing, all of them well-deserved. John Seitz's black-and-white cinematography is a particular stand-out, effectively capturing the flat white expanse of the Mojave Desert (convincingly standing in for the Sahara) against the softer grey of the sky, an exaggerated contrast of shading and texture that suggests the isolating deadliness of the landscape to excellent effect.
The Oscars notwithstanding, the film's chief accomplishment, nearly 75 years after its premiere date, is probably its great strength as a thriller. Bordwell notes the skill with which Brackett and Wilder add complications and create ever-escalating trials for Bramble to overcome (first to survive the desert; next to outwit the Germans who think he's an undercover Nazi spy; then to solve the puzzle of the titular five graves, while the German Lt. Schwegler, played by Peter van Eyck, grows increasingly suspicious of his story). But it takes watching the film to appreciate how gracefully these complications are added, woven into the dialogue and character interactions so deftly that you only notice in retrospect that the film's conflict has completely shifted over the course of the last scene.
Above and beyond the film's narrative success as a thriller, we must also pay attention to the extraordinary skill with which Wilder the director executes the film's scenes of tension. We now know, with access to the subsequent 38 years of his career, what a remarkably uncharacteristic film this was for Wilder. It all but completely lacks the sardonic, satiric humor on full display in everything from unassailable classics like Sunset Blvd. (1950) to lesser known curiosities such as The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970). It also stands out as the only pure thriller he ever directed. Despite this, the film is a strong example of its genre, from the very first moments of a seemingly abandoned tank chugging through the desert underneath the opening credits. Note the steady progression of opening images: first a wide angle of the tank in the middle of nowhere, which dissolves to a shot of the tank mostly filling the screen, allowing us to notice the body slumped out of the hatch. A second dissolve brings us right next to the body, firmly and morbidly answering the mystery posed in the first shot: what has happened to this tank? A hard cut next brings us inside, to where the dead man's hanging legs sway gently with the movement of the tank, over a floor littered with spent ammunition, providing further clarification of the violence that has befallen these dead soldiers. This wordless introduction, which ends by revealing the still-alive but delirious Bramble, is a miniature version of the strategy of this film, but also of the whole Hollywood approach to filmmaking: raise a question, answer it, answer it again with a different question. What's wrong with the tank? – whose body is that? – where did those shells come from? – we are quickly ushered into the ugly violence of war in just a few precise visuals. It's visual exposition at its finest.
The filmmakers' use of imagery to build a sense of danger remains constant throughout the film. In one early scene, Bramble hides behind a box with a decorative screen: Wilder and Seitz cover Tone in a crosshatch pattern of shadows that mimics his subsequent point-of-view shot as he looks through the screen to see Schwegler harassing hapless hotelier Farid (Akim Tamiroff), visually stressing Bramble's feeling of being confined with no place to run. A few shots later, Wilder exploits an ambiguous eyeline to make it seem that Shwegler has spotted Bramble – but instead, he was looking just above the concealed British soldier. The compositions and editing align perfectly to give us a momentary kick of dread that relaxes into a wary watchfulness; but we're always prepared for another kick, and it animates the film's tension throughout.
None of this is particularly special or artful, one might say, and that is of course exactly the point. Five Graves to Cairo matters not because it is an unmatched original, but because it so wholly embodies the strengths of 1940s filmmaking and screen storytelling. It is, no doubt, an atypically good version of 1940s filmmaking, but in most respects, this is exactly what 1940s Hollywood was capable of as a matter of course, and it's as an exemplar rather than as a one-off that the film remains worthy of study and admiration – and, no less, pure enjoyment.