Notable as an early example of Wilder's talent for turning headlines into storylines. This tense WWII espionage film stars Tone as John Bramble, a British soldier stranded in a desert town which suddenly fills with German troops. Assuming the role of a dead servant at a hotel run by
Farid (Tamiroff), Bramble gradually gains the confidence of French housekeeper Mouche (Baxter), a woman deeply resentful of the British for leaving French troops, including her brother, behind at Dunkirk. After the hotel becomes Rommel's temporary headquarters, Bramble realizes that his
impersonation is even more hazardous than he had envisioned: the dead man was really an agent working for the Germans. Convincing the Nazis that he is indeed the spy in their employ, he is instructed to go to Cairo to prepare for a German invasion.
Although the devilishly clever plotting of the film is one of its more obvious merits, FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO scores on every level. The dialogue is by turns crisp, witty and stinging, and this cast is fully capable of making the most of it. Tone's gift for lending depth to his characters through
understatement rarely found such a worthy vehicle. Baxter (in a moving turn and sporting a decent French accent), Tamiroff, Mander, Van Eyck (as a sleazy Nazi aide), and Bonanova (as an opera-loving Italian general) are all in fine form as well.
But of course a large share of the praise must go to that master scene-stealer Von Stroheim. Alternately brutal and civilized, arrogant and quiet, Rommel emerges as a complex military genius in this marvelous performer's hands. Wilder introduces him with a close-up of the back of his creased neck
bursting over a high military collar, a technique Von Stroheim used in silent days when he profiled the evil Huns of WWI.
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