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Directed by Billy Wilder:
Five Graves to Cairo
A Foreign Affair
TCM Vault Collection Double Bill

Directed by Billy Wilder:
Five Graves to Cairo, A Foreign Affair

TCM Vault Collection
1943, 1948 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 96, 116 min. / Street Date October, 2012 /
Starring Franchot Tone, Anne Baxter, Akim Tamiroff, Erich von Stroheim, Peter van Eyck, Fortunio Bonanova; Jean Arthur, Marlene Dietrich, John Lund, Millard Mitchell.
John F. Seitz; Charles Lang
Film Editor Doane Harrison; Doane Harrison
Original Music Miklos Rozsa; Friedrich Hollaender
Written by Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett from a play by Lajos Biró; Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, Richard L. Breen from a story by David Shaw
Produced by Charles Brackett
Directed by Billy Wilder

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

I actually feel sad catching up with these last two Billy Wilder movies to come to DVD. Of American directors Wilder has an enviable track record -- just a couple of real turkeys and an overwhelming majority of marvelous comedies and gripping dramas. Following the lead of Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder jumped from a successful writing career into an even bigger writing-directing career, staying close with his Ninotchka teammate Charles Brackett. The Major and The Minor may have been intended as a 'safe' comedy to insure Wilder's foothold in the rarified circle of top directors. For the next three films he turned to dramatic subjects, including the Oscar-winning The Lost Weekend and his first masterpiece, the irreplaceable film noir Double Indemnity.

But first came 1943's Five Graves to Cairo, which from the outside might seem just another wartime morale-builder, a fantasy spy story about the desert war in North Africa. Adapting a play to suit the topical situation, Wilder and Brackett plot their thriller as tightly as Wilder's future comedy masterpieces. In between scenes of realistic tension, the show is compact, intelligent and frequently wickedly funny. Unable to attract a top star to what in some ways is a downbeat story, Brackett and Wilder settle for solid actors and a superb guest appearance by one of Wilder's idols, silent movie legend Erich Von Stroheim.

In the North African desert east of Tobruk, Brit tank gunner Corporal Bramble (Franchot Tone) barely survives when the Afrika Corps once again routs Montgomery's Expeditionary Force, pushing closer to Cairo and the Suez Canal. Bramble stumbles into a partially bombed hotel run by Farid (Akim Tamiroff), where Parisian Mouche (Anne Baxter) is the only employee, a chambermaid. The German advance swarms into the tiny rest stop to spend a couple of nights. Bramble is forced to pose as the hotel's clubfooted waiter, Paul Davos, who was buried under bomb wreckage. "Davos" is accepted by the invaders. Nazi Lt. Schwegler (Peter van Eyck) goes against regulations to seduce Mouche, with the promise that he'll help free her brother from a prison camp. Italian general Sebastiano (Fortunio Bonanova of Kiss Me Deadly) throws mini-tantrums because the Germans stick him in a room with broken plumbing and won't let him sing opera. But the most important new hotel guest is none other than Field Marshall Erwin Rommel (Erich von Stroheim). Bramble/Davos determines to assassinate Rommel, but then finds out in his first meeting that Paul Davos wasn't just a waiter -- he was a career spy for the Germans, passing on intelligence when the Brits occupied the hotel. The German Field Marshall has an incredible secret method of supplying his Corps with gasoline and ammunition, which accounts for their success against the Brits - Bramble realizes that he must discover this secret and escape with it to Cairo!

The marvelous Five Graves to Cairo sees Wilder coming up with an incredibly slick bit of moviemaking, with suspense, humor, a little romance and a perfect attitude toward its subject. Austrians Wilder and Von Stroheim stayed away from the kind of insult and ridicule Fritz Lang employed in Hangmen Also Die!, making his Nazis into perverts so obvious that they'd be unable to function. Wilder's Rommel and Schwegler are highly efficient soldiers, not raving ideologues. Wilder is said to have bowed to some of Von Stroheim's ideas, but most of the best touches appear to be part of the script. This version of Rommel is a tough, proud officer convinced of his own invincibility. Like his character in Renoir's Grand Illusion, he extends a chivalrous hand to the British officers he's captured.

Wilder begins with an eerie wordless action scene: an M3 Lee tank rolls unguided through the Saharan sand dunes, like a ghost coach. He also manages a good chase-fight during an air raid. Emulating his hero Ernst Lubitsch, Wilder has not a wasted shot or angle, nor word of dialogue. Only Von Stroheim is apparently allowed to ad-lib... maybe. The actors are sublimated to the rigors of the storyline, which may be why Cary Grant types turned it down. This may be Franchot Tone's best performance; he's so good that we don't miss the lack of a Brit accent. Anne Baxter's Mouche is a pretty strong creation, a borderline prostitute openly offering herself to Rommel and settling for the dishonest Schwegler. The situation is almost like The Apartment. Mouche has to compromise herself with a lecher to get what she wants; Bramble fantasizes about the Bowler hat he's going to buy some day. She ends up making a suicidal gesture.

The title refers to Rommel's clever, near-foolproof plan to supply his advancing troops. Besides providing a Sherlock Holmes- style mystery for Bramble to solve, it promotes just the right propaganda message. In this view of things, the early African campaign didn't go badly because the Brits and Americans were incompetent strategists (cough, cough) but because Rommel had a big advantage. And the fact that it was all planned back in 1937 "proves" that Hitler and Company had a sinister blueprint for world conquest worked out years in advance.

Wilder's bittersweet ending is played completely straight, without the cynical edge that informed his noir quadrilogy. He patterned his techniques after his mentor Lubitsch, and may have wanted to take his movie back to "papa" for approval.

Miklos Rozsa's martial score is a big plus in making Five Graves to Cairo seem an extension of the great war entertainments made by Alexander Korda. The little Egyptian rest stop was filmed down at the Salton Sea, southeast of Los Angeles. The real Irwin Rommel was indeed a brilliant field commander, but his legacy has been upgraded a few notches: he was a conspirator in the July 20 plot to assassinate Hitler.

Billy Wilder had been part of a group of filmmakers that made the popular 'city symphony' comic romance People on Sunday in 1929. As a big-time director he took part in the de-Nazification of the German film and theater in the American Zone, but he'd return to Berlin twice more, to make highly political movies. The most notable instance is 1961's One, Two, Three, a raucous comedy with scattershot jokes about the divided city of Berlin. What makes the film famous today is that Wilder was tossing around satirical spitballs about the Cold War, while the world was edging closer to a nuclear confrontation.

1948's A Foreign Affair takes the same approach, even though the supposed comic target is the hanky-panky fraternization and black market activities that were giving the military occupation of Germany a black eye. Lubitsch became somewhat controversial for making Hitler and concentration camp jokes in 1942's To Be or Not To Be; Wilder steps on the same sore toes when he makes similar jokes in A Foreign Affair. A 'de-Nazification' officer interviews a father with a delinquent son, a little Hitler Youth punk who chalks swastika graffiti wherever he goes. The father wants the boy punished, to which the Army officer says, "what do you want me to do, throw him in a gas chamber?" Played as broad comedy, the scene has a pretty high potential to offend.

Wilder and Brackett shared credit for the wild but beautifully sculpted screenplay with Richard L. Breen. The highly conservative, stickler-for-detail congresswoman Phoebe Frost (audience favorite Jean Arthur) joins a committee visiting Berlin to investigate charges of immorality and black-market corruption. She's bamboozled by the womanizing Captain John Pringle (John Lund), who pretends to be a fellow Iowan but in actuality is protecting German national Erika Von Schluetow (Marlene Dietrich), a nightclub performer wanted by the U.S. Army for her previous romantic connections with the Reich high command, in particular an SS Commandant named Hans Otto Birgel. Phoebe sees Von Schluetow's racy performance and gets wind that an 'Army bigwig' is shielding her for amorous reasons. She suspects Pringle's pragmatic commanding officer, Colonel Rufus J. Plummer (Millard Mitchell). When newsreels surface of Erika hobnobbing with Hitler, Pringle becomes understandably alarmed. The devious Erika finds a way to compromise Phoebe as well as her Yankee boyfriend. But the big surprise comes when Plummer orders Pringle to make his dalliance with Erika public: the possessive Birgel (Peter von Zerneck) is very alive and will hopefully come out of hiding to kill the Army's "Love Commando."

A Foreign Affair has a ball sending up foolish popular assumptions about the occupation and the behavior of soldiers far from home -- soldiers from any country. Wilder takes a direct shot at the BS message in wartime movies like The Human Comedy that G.I.'s spend their time eating boxes of cookies from home and singing songs around the campfire. He instead gives us an Abbott & Costello-like pair of dumpy dogfaces who ride around Berlin on a bicycle, looking for die fraüleins to pick up, with candy bars as bait.

Wilder's cynical comic sense comes through strong. Pringle and Erika share what passes for a rough sex life -- she spits toothpaste in his face and he talks about beating her up. Erika lives in a bombed-out ruin; she's nailed Pringle as her source for impossible-to-find items like soap and nylons, and hopes that he'll take her to America. Erika laughs at Phoebe Frost, with her ugly hairstyle and lack of makeup, shooting merciless insults about hopelessly drab American women. It's the only ammunition Erika has in her six-year fight for survival: "Can you even imagine what it was like to be a woman in this town when the Russians came in?"

Wilder doesn't quite balance his official message -- the occupation is sane and constructive, so butt out, critics -- with jabs at Phoebe Frost's prudishness, and the much more exciting images of high times at the Lorelei nightclub. Russian soldiers take breaks from drinking to toss people at the ceiling, including Marlene Dietrich. Friedrich Hollaender contributes three good songs for Dietrich to sing, and she never looked or sang better. The tune "The Ruins of Berlin" rises to a dramatic pitch as the SS fugitive Birgel emerges from the shadows to shoot his rival John Pringle.

Wilder and Brackett's ability to make jokes pay off, or repeat, or be echoed by similar jokes, gets a good workout. We also see some nifty transitional touches, like the 'target' that Col. Plummer draws onto a foggy window, to show Phoebe that Pringle is in grave danger. Wilder allows the image of the target to linger across the dissolve to the nightclub, to float right above Captain Pringle's heart. Wilder will use the same superimposure trick with some elevator numbers to lead up to a crucial scene in his later Sabrina.

A Foreign Affair is no less brilliant than any of Billy Wilder's other comedies, but it had some problematical "issues". Wilder's coarse humor and refusal to mollify Hollywood gossip mavens was well known, and the whole town listened when Jean Arthur complained that the director cruelly made her look terrible against the fashion-plate Dietrich. Sensitive about her age, Arthur backed away from acting and made only one more movie, the famous Shane. Even though Arthur took back her protest when she saw the movie (and she's supposed to be playing a sexless woman named "Frost", after all) Hollywood critics pegged this as an early example of Wilder of being cruel and brutal to his leading ladies. Wilder's heroines frequently go through terrible emotional ordeals and several try to commit suicide. Idiot critics couldn't separate scripts from a director wisecracks. Actresses like Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine were supposedly being brutalized by a sadist, when in reality Wilder gave them some of their best roles.

A Foreign Affair was considered a failure and was once a hard-to-see title in the Paramount library (it actually is one of the pre-1949 pictures sold to MCA, so has been controlled by Universal all this time). Was it too hip for the house in 1948? Or was its political attitude too flippant? The movie slams the German reconstruction and hints at the survival of the Nazi past, a movie topic that seems to have been (here's where the opinion begins) discouraged by the wave of anti-Communist, pro-America politics in Washington D.C.. A Fox picture called The Big Lift sees a G.I. taken for a ride by an equally needy/predatory German woman, who intends to rejoin her husband, a German POW still being kept in an American prison camp. It has become relatively obscure as well, despite starring Montgomery Clift. The sticky issue of the survival of Naziism suddenly disappeared from screens, replaced by Cold War fantasies about sneaky Russians. At least one already-finished movie about a Post-war Nazi conspiracy (The Whip Hand) was re-shot to swap out the German villains for Russian communists. Wilder's comedy about morale in the conquering U.S. Army reached a lot of people with no sense of humor about such things. What about our image abroad?

The TCM Vault Collection / Universal's DVD of Directed by Billy Wilder: Five Graves to Cairo and A Foreign Affair are very good standard-def renderings of these unheralded classics. Spoiled as we are these days to see less prominent Paramount films being released in Blu-ray, we wish that the home video business were A LOT different. Just the same, with the exception of just two, or maybe one title (Fedora?), everything Billy Wilder directed may have now been released on disc. Both titles have good transfers, with some very minor age damage here and there. The audio on Cairo is every so slightly distorted, while the track on Affair is clean -- love those Hollaender songs!

The two titles are on separate discs. TCM provides some text extras and art & still galleries, but nothing fancy. The original posters for A Foreign Affair look pretty weak. TCM host Ben Mankiewicz provides an introduction for Five Graves to Cairo.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Directed by Billy Wilder: Five Graves to Cairo, A Foreign Affair rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good
Sound: Very Good
Subtitles: none
Supplements: Ben Mankiewicz intro, text article, galleries of stills and artwork
Packaging: two discs in Keep case
Reviewed: October 14, 2012

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2012 Glenn Erickson

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