Les cinq secrets du desert (Five Graves to Cairo)

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

All-Region French Import;
Elephant;
Drama;
$29.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Franchot Tone, Anne Baxter, Erich von Stroheim, Akim Tamiroff.

Given Kino Classics’ laudable current endeavor to bring the cream of the 1929-49 Paramount library out on Blu-ray, it will will likely get around to releasing what remains one of Billy Wilder’s least-seen films (and an early collaboration with producer/co-writer Charles Brackett as well), maybe even sooner rather than later. But one of my ubiquitous “twilight” life projects is to go through Wilder’s output chronologically (as well as that of other filmmakers of his stature) in their best available renderings, and All-Region Elephant Films from France has done standout work with vintage Paramounts-that-matter almost straight down the line. So, here we go.

Set in slight flashback for in the time it was made against what looks to be one of the most geographically granular parts of Egypt, 1943’s Five Graves to Cairo was just the second Hollywood movie that Wilder directed, sandwiched between the still charmingly hilarious The Major and the Minor and all-timer Double Indemnity, whose sordidness apparently so offended Brackett’s outward Southern gentleman to such a degree that he took a pass on contributing to it. In World War II terms, Cairo’s geographical backdrop is here located in what at least for now is German Gen. Erwin Rommel territory, with Franchot Tone playing the one surviving member of a British Eighth Army tank crew who’s been whipped along with his other  colleagues during the recent conflict. The picture’s opening visual is a British tank full of corpses and an unconscious Tone — which means that no one is actually piloting the currently aimless vehicle that keeps rolling up and then down one sand dune after another. I first saw Cairo when I was about 12 in 1960 and have never forgotten this shot. Movies are funny that way, just as brief real-life remembrances are.

After what seems like a long hike during which he has to be seriously dehydrated, the barely alert Tone stumbles upon a town and its “Empress of Britain Hotel” — which is about free of Brits as you’d expect at this time. Actually, it’s pretty well free of everyone, though there is a proprietor played by Akim Tamiroff, an actor whose ham Wilder can’t always control here. (Speaking just for myself, my perception of Tamiroff only occasionally overcame J.D. Salinger’s characterization of him in one of the author’s anthologized Nine Stories — whichever one it is that describes Tamiroff as the actor who always says, “You make beeg joke — hah?”) There’s also a French chambermaid (Anne Baxter), who’d like to find some way to get help for her permanently injured brother who’s been captured by Germans. The role needs someone more exciting and alluring, and I wish Simone Simon, who apparently tested for it, had been cast instead.

Fortunately, Tone is pretty good here, and there are a couple supporting gems with future echoes of the Brackett-Wilder Sunset Blvd. One is the appearance of that masterpiece’s Erich von Stroheim himself, who cuts an imposing monocled figure as Rommel — a performance whose tone differs a lot from James Mason’s in Henry Hathaway’s The Desert Fox, an intelligent Rommel wartime biopic that I’ve always liked (it was one of the first films ever aired on NBC’s “Saturday Night at the Movies”). The other is an Italian general played by Fortunio Bonanova, who shortly thereafter would have a funny bit in Wilder’s Double Indemnity as a trucker/insurance scammer who fails miserably trying to pull a fast one on Edward G. Robinson, cast as the firm’s near-infallible cheat-sniffer. Wilder goes to town with these characterizations and the fun he pokes at the Italian general — with Rommel always making certain that the latter gets the hotel room where the bathroom doesn’t work when these members of the Axis powers take over the hotel for powwows from time to time.

This officer invasion demands some quick thinking on the part of Tone, who is neither German nor Italian. Conveniently, he takes over the identity of a clubfooted waiter who’s just been killed in a blast — a guy who never previously met Rommel met eye to eye but whom the general knows to have been a Nazi spy, which adds to Tone’s good fortune (at least for a while). Meanwhile, amid all this in-house intrigue, Baxter is reluctantly playing up sexually to Rommel/Stroheim’s favorite staffer lieutenant (it probably helps that she holds no love for the Brits) in an attempt to pull strings for her brother. The young officer’s role is a predictably comfy fit for Peter Van Eyck, who was in the early stages of career of playing German officers that lasted all the way up to swan song The Bridge at Remagen in 1969.

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Things get more complicated after this, and how could they not? This is definitely lesser Wilder, but it’s still a movie for grown-ups, which a lot of old Paramounts were. I’m constantly amazed at the level of assumed intelligence on the part of the audience that this old romantic cynic always worked on, and it’s impossible to imagine any Cairo ever having come from MGM — or if so, not unless Louis B. Mayer could shoehorn in a production number or two by Virginia O’Brien or Ginny Simms. (Ironically, the best by far of the era’s Hollywood-produced WWII dramas ended up coming from MGM right at the end of the war with They Were Expendable. Even L.B. wasn’t going to tell the future Rear Adm. John Ford how to go about his business.) I remember reading an interview with Wilder sometime in the early ’60s, when he’d recently caught Cairo on the late show and thought it too preachy. There’s a little of this, but not that much of it for the day, and it comes late in the film.

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As old Variety reviews used to say, “Technical credits are ‘pro’” — and the picture got Oscar nominations for cinematography, black-and-white art/set decoration and plus editing by longtime Wilder teammate Doane Harrison, whose association lasted until Sabrina. The cinematographer was John Seitz, who would shoot several of Paramount’s best movies (early Wilders included), and the score is by Miklos Rozsa, whose allegiance stretched, with long layoffs, from Double Indemnity and The Lost Weekend to Fedora). As a result, there’s an “old home week” feel to the movie, which I personally find appealing enough to elevate material that, to an extent, probably cramped Wilder’s style out of a need and necessity to support the troops. As expected, it looks very good on Blu-ray as well.

Mike’s Picks: “House by the River” and “Five Graves to Cairo”

Phantom Lady

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

MVD/Arrow;
Drama;
$39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Franchot Tone, Ella Raines, Alan Curtis, Thomas Gomez.

Known earlier in his career as co-director of a German-cinema milestone on which seemingly every future Hollywood émigré legend labored (People on Sunday), Robert Siodmak enjoyed a mostly terrific and certainly prolific Hollywood run from about 1944 to 1952, until a subsequent life of hard bumps and relative oblivion commenced. He’s among the directors who first come to mind in any discussion of film noir, though let it be noted that he managed to cap his American career with Burt Lancaster’s widely adored The Crimson Pirate, which can still show the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise a thing or two (and this is speaking as one who’s not un-fond of the first one).

Phantom Lady was Siodmak’s noir launcher, sandwiched between Son of Dracula (Lon Chaney as Count Alucard, and you’d better spell it backwards) and Maria Montez’s Cobra Woman (in Technicolor and with a script co-penned by Richard Brooks, who probably didn’t learn too much he later could bring to Blackboard Jungle from the experience). After an extended build-up that makes one wonder if the movie will break out into something more, Lady is ultimately put over by three extended sequences that easily carry the story beyond what turns out to be a resourcefully versatile lead actress (Ella Raines) is already doing. These set-pieces benefit from Siodmak’s accomplished eye and, one would assume, Elwood “Woody” Bredell — a cinematographer I had to look up because he was unknown to me. Turns out he shot two other Siodmak noirs (and two of the best: Christmas Holiday and Burt Lancaster’s star-maker The Killers) and then a pair of Warner Technicolor achievements that have been 60-year personal favorites: Doris Day’s star-maker Romance on the High Seas and Errol Flynn’s Adventures of Don Juan, which I love almost as much as The Adventures of Robin Hood (there, I said it). Why didn’t Bredell work more?

Anyway. The Lady script (Bernard C. Shoenfeld adapting William Irish, aka Cornell Woolrich) asks a lot in terms of asking us to accept coincidences and other unlikely events. A New York architect under the thumb of his estranged wife’s money (Alan Baxter) is accused of strangling her, and his alibi is a classy but depressed woman he picked up at a bar but whose heavily depressed state at the time kept her from divulging her name. Baxter later can’t locate her, the bartender claims never to have seen her, and soon this rather abruptly convicted victim is on death’s row. In lieu of help from a best friend (Franchot Tone) who’s out of the country, Baxter’s only hope is the sleuthing of his secretary (Ella Raines) who is constantly finding herself in life-threatening situations once it becomes clear that something about the whole deal smells highly suspect.

Here’s an 87-minute movie in which top-billed Tone doesn’t show up for nearly an hour, which means that the burden is on the mostly straight-arrow, Wichita-bred assistant Raines is playing — though in one of those three standout scenes, she rather spectacularly tarts herself up to masquerade as what used to be a called a “chippie” (a good word whose common usage I miss). This part of the story includes the famous drumming sequence by one of the bribed heavies here (Elisa Cook Jr.), whose studio-dubbed playing at a jam session is either supposed to come off as orgasmic or some kind of Gene Krupa-ish reefer madness. (Poor Gene. Whenever he’d come on TV in the ’50s and ’60s, the disapproving mother of a friend of mine used to yell, “dissipated” at the screen. She also did the same to did as well as any tube image of comedian and game show host Jan Murray, but I’m not necessarily her to give you my life story.)

When Tone finally shows up, he displays a few eccentricities of his own, which means he fits right into the package. It’s a twitchy performance that works for me and is certainly unlike anything else I can think of in the actor’s history (had he played the vice president’s role like this in Otto Preminger’s better-than-ever adaptation of Advise and Consent, it definitively would have put a decidedly different cast on the movie). Tone’s extended scene with Raines late in the picture is another of the picture’s big moments, along with Cook’s drum frenzy and Raines’s nocturnal pursuit of the bartender in her attempt to determine why the guy lied about never having seen the woman who was sitting at the bar with Baxter.

By this time — and even though his situation is what motivates the entire plot — the Baxter character becomes kind of the forgotten man. An actor who died in real life at 43 — and was, I’m flabbergasted to see, onetime Commissioner of Baseball Peter Ueberroth’s real-life uncle — Baxter was one of those actors who, like John Carroll and John Lund (though I always liked Lund), donned a mustache in some futile attempt to become the new Clark Gable. Ultimately, this is Raines’s picture from her biggest year in the movies (1944), when she also had the female lead in Preston Sturges’ Hail the Conquering Hero (my favorite Sturges, says this son of a World War II Marine) and Tall in the Saddle — in which the bluejeaned/tomboy persona she projected in it made her one of John Wayne’s best leading ladies ever. I don’t know why Raines didn’t become a bigger star, but working for Universal in the ’40s and then Republic in the ’50s likely wasn’t the way to go about it.

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Visually, the Arrow Blu-ray is definitely a step up from the old TCM DVD, and that’s important when we’re dealing with shadows, fog, streetlights on pavement and that sexy/trashy black outfit Raines uncharacteristically dons when working undercover to determine just what Cook’s seamy story is. Extras include an Alan Rode essay (class) and a vintage noir doc that runs just under an hour that is better in the early and more germane going (appearances by Robert Wise and Edward Dmytryk) than it is later on when John Dahl, Dennis Hopper, Carl Franklin and Bryan Singer talk about neo-noir, which tends to date the package, though some may disagree. It’s never a loss, though, seeing directors talk about their works, especially ones that have followings.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Wanda’ and ‘Phantom Lady’