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Five Graves to Cairo (1943)


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#1 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 22 January 2010 - 02:07 AM

I caught this movie on TCM the other night. It was Billy Wilder's second American feature, made with the same cinematographer who would later shoot "Sunset Boulevard", John Seitz. Though ultimately it becomes a WW2 propaganda movie right at the end, most of the movie is a taut thriller in the mode of Hitchcock, with one twist after another.

A British tank is wandering through sand dunes in North Africa, apparently with a dead crew onboard. But one member wakes up, barely alive, and falls out of the tank and wanders into a small coastal town with an old hotel. He manages to faint in the lobby just as a German squadron pulls up with General Erwin Rommel, played by Erich Von Stroheim. The British soldier takes the identity of a waiter killed that morning in a bombing raid, only to find out that this man was a spy for the Germans, who therefore trust him. His first plan is to kill Rommel, but then some captured British officers arrive, one of whom knew the dead waiter, but quickly realizes what is going on. Anyway, more twists are piled on as this man tries to stay alive, find out Rommel's plans, and escape from the hotel. Being mostly set in this one location, it is very tense and claustrophobic. There is even a Hitchcockian MacGuffin, a map of Rommel's that somehow has clues hidden in plain sight.

John Seitz lights the old hotel very moodily, with lots of shadow patterns from the desert sun passing through slats in the ceiling and blinds on the windows, etc. He lets a lot of the rooms fall off into darkness, but it all manages to also have a realistic feeling, not a stagebound look.

It's only at the end that there is a long montage showing the Allied victories in North Africa (remember this movie came out in 1943) that the tension is lost.
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#2 Justin Hayward

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Posted 22 January 2010 - 01:11 PM

Cool. Gotta check that out. I can’t find it on Netflix, though.

We don’t often get strong set-ups like that in blockbusters these days – an act 1 that literally leaves us thirsting for more. They’re mostly thin stories filled with overlong sequences that fulfill the genre.

Thanks for the heads-up.
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#3 Jean Dodge

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Posted 05 February 2010 - 02:14 PM

I was lucky enough to see this years ago on the big screen, i think as part of a larger Eric Von Stroheim retrospective. He of course plays Rommel. Much of the film is inside the hotel but plot is compelling and like all of Wider's work, very smart and a lot of fun to follow.

Seitz also shot the silent film TRAIL OF '98 that shows on TCM and of course DOUBLE INDEMNITY and LOST WEEKEND, too. Quite a lengthy career.
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#4 Jean Dodge

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Posted 05 February 2010 - 02:14 PM

I was lucky enough to see this years ago on the big screen, i think as part of a larger Eric Von Stroheim retrospective. He of course plays Rommel. Much of the film is inside the hotel but plot is compelling and like all of Wider's work, very smart and a lot of fun to follow.

Seitz also shot the silent film TRAIL OF '98 that shows on TCM and of course DOUBLE INDEMNITY and LOST WEEKEND, too. Quite a lengthy career.
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Wooden Camera

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