Tuesday, May 25, 2010


This WWII spy thriller, directed by Billy Wilder and set in a hotel in the middle of a North African desert, is famous for its opening scene: a tank, with a dead soldier protruding from the top, is rolling up and down the dunes. We soon see a few more bodies in the belly of the tank, but it turns out that one of them, British soldier Franchot Tone, is still alive. He manages to get out of the tank and stumble, barely conscious, to the above-mentioned hotel, called the Empress of Britain, where he collapses in the lobby in the presence of the only people left in the hotel (in advance of the German invasion by Rommel): Egyptian hotelkeeper Akim Tamiroff and French chambermaid Anne Baxter, who holds a grudge against the British for the capture of her brother at Dunkirk. Tamiroff hides Tone just as Rommel's men arrive to prepare the hotel to be their headquarters. When Tone decides he wants to stay to assassinate Rommel, he takes on the identity of a hotel waiter who died during a bombing, and whose dead body is still under some rubble in the basement (so of course, we know that body will soon come to light and cause problems). The twist: Tone soon finds out that the man he’s impersonating was actually a German spy, so he has to pretend to be helpful to the Nazis holed up in the hotel while he plots their downfall.

The rest of the film, based on a stage play, consists of the cat-and-mouse games that Tone plays with Rommel (Erich von Stroheim, who steals every scene he's in); instead of killing Rommel, Tone decides to crack the code of the location of the "Five Graves to Cairo," five buried supply sites crucial to the success of the Germans in North Africa. Baxter plays her own little game, flirting with a German officer (Peter Van Eyck, pictured) in hopes that he will free her brother. Would Baxter go so far as to betray Tone? Or will the waiter's semi-buried body betray him first? This is a fun little thriller which would be better known if it had a different lead actor; Tone is OK in light romantic parts, but rises to his level of incompetence here--he is no Bogart, nor an Errol Flynn, and in fact, even a B-actor like James Craig or William Lundigan might have given the role more life. Luckily, the script is strong, and the other actors are fine, not just Stroheim, but the under-rated Tamiroff (who always played swarthy foreigners), the young--only 20--and beautiful Baxter, and the slimy but handsome Van Eyck. This movie has an early version of one of my favorite Billy Wilder lines: In ONE, TWO, THREE, James Cagney says, "I wish I was in hell with my back broken"; here, Tamiroff says the same thing, except wishing he was in a black pit rather than hell. Overall, well worth seeing. [TCM]

1 comment:

Jim said...

Dang, I wish I'd seen this!