Five Graves to Cairo (1943) and The Desert Fox

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For modern audiences especially, the movie’s opening crawl gives us a bit of helpful context. It’s June, 1942.  Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Corps was pounding the Brits back toward Cairo and the Suez Canal. His notoriety as a tactician and “The Desert Fox” is already spreading. That’s enough on the historical moment.

However, as far as the film is concerned, this was Billy Wilder’s second film behind the camera. Not only is Charles Brackett producing, but he also shared script-writing duties with Wilder, deep into their lucrative, if complicated, collaboration. With the gorgeously perfected cinematography of John Seitz, it’s hard not to consider what was just around the corner. We can almost feel Double Indemnity peeking through. But we’re not quite there yet. There is still space to grow.

Wilder’s opening image is a fine vision: a phantom tank trawling across the sands driven by the dead weight of a corpse. Except, there is one survivor inside the rolling tomb; his name is Corporal John Bramble (Franchot Tone), of the British army. He’s exhausted and terribly disoriented trying to make sense of his curious predicament just as we are.

In the end, the tank gets away without him, leaving the corporal to wander through the desert in a one-person exodus. Plagued by sunstroke, he eventually trades the vast arid emptiness for a ghost town, the former regimental headquarters for the British forces. They have long since left the premises.

One of the only people left in The Empress of Britain Hotel is Farid (Akim Tamiroff), a bumbling wreck of a man, trying to keep his neck and assuage all parties at every turn. The other is Mouche (Anne Baxter), a Frenchwoman in the middle of nowhere, serving as a maid. His cook ran out on him and his only waiter got it in the most recent blitzkrieg.

There’s no time to form a decision about the delusional Brit because just to make things more tenuous German forces roll into town, in preparation for the high command. It’s enough to make any man cave, much less a pile of perpetual nerves, wearing a fez, like Farid.

He obviously acquiesces to their every whim, except giving away their newest guest, currently stowed away behind a counter. He gets by on the skin of his teeth and through the clemency of his newfound benefactors as they vouch for him in his position as their waiter. For the time being, no one can catch them in the lie.

In full transparency, I’m not quite sure what to make of Baxter’s performance — that of an American playing a Frenchwoman, however, I’m rather hesitant to admit she does a fairly spot-on approximation of a Simone Simon or other French contemporaries speaking in English. Truthfully, the whole picture brazenly scrambles all the nationalities, somehow normalizing all the casting. Another American as a Brit. A Russian as an Egyptian, An Austrian as a German, and so on.

Italians come in as well, represented by the boisterous baritone, Fortunio Bonavova, grumbling about the state of affairs for his army. There proves to be a testy relationship even within Axis allies. As always, the Italians feel like the comical little brother in the scenario. If we take the Germans nominally serious — as a kind of threat — the Italians are all but dismissed.

Erich Von Stroheim gives a blood-chilling introduction, back turned completely toward the camera. One thing he doesn’t lack is stage presence, capturing the screen with the entirety of his entrance. While he’s not doing an imitation of the real Rommel, it seems Von Stroheim does us a greater favor by being a version of himself. After all, this is the same hallowed figure who gave us Greed, showed up in Renoir’s Le Grande Illusion, and subsequently Sunset Blvd (1950). He is a worthy enigma in his own right.

The story twirls on a peculiar, if not altogether compelling, coincidence. Bramble takes on the persona of the crippled waiter as a pure survival tactic, only to find out he’s not what he seems. The Germans are the ones who make him realize this, by bringing him into their confidence. They seem in one sense highly rational — at any rate, not utter buffoons — and yet would they have actually been so stupid? We can only conjecture. Regardless, here we are. He’s been given an invaluable if precarious, opportunity.

With an influx of British prisoners, there’s a fear that the jig is finally up. They only need give the word, and he’s done for. Instead, they too play along, realizing their brilliant luck. 20 questions over dinner with The Desert Fox only elicits more riddles when it comes to his plans and unparalleled success.

Even more so than Stalag 17, Wilder’s picture is a small-scale war film. What’s present is a decently solid script by he and Charles Brackett. While it doesn’t always jump off the page, there are frequent lines, giving a stirring reminder of who is penning this story. These are the men behind Double Indemnity.

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It also becomes obvious the battles have been left for others to reenact. At its best, Five Graves to Cairo is about character and with it, cracking the code of Rommel. It might seem like an insignificant victory but the implication for the broader war are made obvious. It’s easy to admit lives are at stake, even as Bramble teeters precariously close to being ousted. Mouche has no allegiance to him or the country that left her countrymen stranded at Dunkirk.

Instead, Wilder uses the bombers overhead as a bit of a tumultuous symphony for what is going down in the bomb cellar. Chiaroscuro is most boldly on display as our hero must flee for his life. If any character is redeemed, it is Mouche, but for the narrative to function, she is also forced to pay the consequences.

The ending is nothing to bat an eye at — certainly no extraordinarily inventive digression — but it suitable enough for its purpose. There’s a bit of satisfaction as Tone returns back to the place he once stumbled into, now victorious. There’s time for a laugh or two, even as a hint of somberness sets in. In the end, a new resolve has been instilled. We’re ready to go out there and do our part. It fits conveniently enough into the contemporary propaganda machine.

It left me thinking, what’s really missing is the trademark Wilder wit, whether trenchant or wholly subversive. Thankfully, there was still ample time for this to come to fruition. There’s certainly no illusions about war smelling like honeysuckle with enough sand, killing, and residual dead to rule that out completely.

But this early in his career, it still feels like Wilder willingly propagates an ongoing idealism about the Allies and America — the country that openly took him in when he needed a place. He would never lose his gratitude, even as he began to subvert convention soon enough. One could contend Wilder started to understand his adopted nation to its core — warts and all — and still managed to love it. This is one of the true marvels of his career.

3.5/5 Stars

 

The Blue Gardenia (1953): Anne Baxter a Victim of Noir

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The Blue Gardenia chooses to establish its characters and allow ample time for the audience to get acquainted with all the players. It’s genuinely a pleasure as we have a number of affable people to grow accustomed to over the course of the story.

There’s local journalist Casey Mayo (Richard Conte) and then pin-up artist Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr), giving a momentary glimpse of a Burr character who is not looking to murder someone or force himself on a woman. The fact that he’s a mere womanizer feels almost tame, showing the desensitization he is capable of instilling.

He, as well as Mayo, can be found wandering around the Los Angeles’ switchboard ward, constantly bustling with activity, call transfers and busy signals galore. The real reason for them to be hanging around are all the pretty working girls. I’m not sure it’s a great reason, but they hang around nonetheless.  The male cast is also rounded out by one of my genre favorites — Richard Erdman, as the ubiquitous cameraman, always lounging on the couch.

It’s with the female talent where Blue Gardenia samples the close-knit camaraderie of such movies as Gold Diggers of 1933 where you have a gaggle of girls living together balancing a career, a love life, and a few laughs. Crystal Carpenter (Ann Sothern) is the wise one who has lived life, maintained her looks, and currently spends evenings with her former husband the homely Homer. Sally (Ms. Jeff Donnell) is her exact antithesis as the young and unattached gal whose idea of a quality evening are dime-store crime romances.

Somewhere in the middle falls Norah (Anne Baxter), the amiable, even-tempered lady who is waiting devotedly for her man to come back from Korea (the war that is). By all accounts, they are madly in love, she has remained eternally faithful to him, and waits upon his return with exuberant expectations. Instead of spending her time out on the town, she imagines romantic meals together by candlelight with roast and champagne.

The Blue Gardenia punches up the melodrama with the disclosure of a fateful letter. It turns out her man has found true love in Tokyo, and Norah has been left adrift with her whole romantic outlook compromised. What is she to do now?

On a whim, she takes up an invitation from Mr. Prebble that was meant to be extended to one of her other roommates. She gets to the Blue Gardenia on Vine, right off of Hollywood, and soaks in the laid-back Polynesian vibe. She’s a bit unsteady, unsure of how to proceed, but she’s there. The main attraction on the floor is none other than the velvety vocals of Nat “King” Cole. His song subsequently haunts the rest of the picture as the story begins to unravel.

Because as hinted at before, Raymond Burr had a certain pedigree, before his days as whip-smart attorney Perry Mason. For lack of a better term, he was always a lascivious cad. We know what his mind is thinking because it’s always blatantly obvious from the expression on his face. Sure enough, a trip to his apartment follows, Norah gets herself more and more intoxicated — a confused and helpless victim in his lair.

He forces himself on her, and she fights him off with a fire poker. Like Philip Marlowe, she enters into a swirling pool of disorientation. It’s this bit of ambiguity laced with terror that the whole plot relies on. Equally crucial is how a victim turns herself into a culprit.

It becomes an uneasy metaphor for the way society is built around men and women are the ones blamed and villainized in certain contexts. This goes back deep into human tradition to the days when a woman’s testimony was not even considered valid in court. Implicitly, it’s as if the burden of proof is on them to prove they are innocent from the very beginning. Norah has every reason to be frightened.

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Because news of Prebble’s death comes out and the paper and the police are looking for the lady who left her shoes behind — this murderess who fled the scene of the crime. Here Mayo comes back into view as he promises to tell the woman’s story if only she would come forward to his paper. However, his intentions seem more driven by circulation goals than an actual charitable heart. Everyone is a wolf out for himself.

This makes it even more tragic that this woman feels so isolated and debilitated she is incapable of going to her best friends and the women around her, as they would be the ones most ready to help her. The other wrinkle is how the newshound unwittingly starts to fall for the girl he’s been looking for. It’s the height of irony even as Norah finally gets implicated in the murder.

Throughout Fritz Lang suffuses the drama with style captured not only in the most traumatic moments but also in the extensive use of tracking shots within the narrative. Still, the dramatic situation is lacking because it is hard to share the same convictions as our lead. It’s not that we don’t sympathize with her.

It’s the fact she should have nothing to be ashamed of or to be fearful about. If there was more time to isolate its themes and hone in, Blue Gardenia would be very much about the recovery process of an individual going through so much trauma. The heart and soul of the picture could be found there, but as is, there simply is not enough time to tease out these ideas.

The penultimate twist is a fine addition although it’s not as if the story can really be salvaged in one instant — happy ending notwithstanding. Despite the talent all around, the mechanisms of the storytelling alone make it apparent this was a genre quickie made with only mild regard for the material. Lang and Nicholas Musuraca are still integral to what we know as film noir — and this film is no exception — but it certainly is a less engaging effort. Probably because we know the illustrious heights they are both capable of.

3/5 Stars

Yellow Sky (1948)

yellowsky2From William A. Wellman comes an unheralded western with an intriguing cast dynamic. Gregory Peck is the undisputed star as the boss of a group of outlaws who ride into town, pull a quick bank job, and are forced to flee from the Cavalry across the desert wasteland. It’s the prerogative of “Stretch” (Peck) to continue across the desolate terrain, despite the obvious drawbacks. But everyone else reluctantly follows although a few are opposed including his biggest rival Dude (Richard Widmark).

The story could end there with the band of fugitives dying of thirst in no man’s land and it nearly does happen, but like a mirage, they come upon a ghost town. It’s like a sick joke because it seems that all the people have picked up and left. All that is except an old prospector and his plucky Granddaughter (Anne Baxter). She is wary of these marauders, and she is extremely protective of her old grandpa. The men get a bit lustful since they have not seen a woman for some time and she catches the eye.

Again, the path of this story seems like it will be stagnant once more and yet that’s before we knew that the two relations are sitting on top of a gold mine. That catches the attention of the outlaws and the avarice grows in the hearts of the men. Not to mention their lustful desires.

yellowsky4That’s what makes “Stretch” such an interesting villain as portrayed by Gregory Peck. Certainly, he does wrong in the eyes of the law, but he has his morals in a sense. He vows to the old man that they will keep their agreement to split the gold. It’s the honorable thing to do and he is smitten with the attractive Mike. But Dude is not so excited about this act of charity and so he gets the boys to turn on “Stretch.” They try and pin him down and thus unfolds the necessary gunfight. The power struggle reaches its apex in the shrouded saloon where “Stretch”, “Dude”, and “Lengthy” face off for one final showdown. Shots are fired and a desperate Mike goes charging in to witness the outcome.

The bad boys get their comeuppance and the stooges including Walrus and Half-Pint (Harry Morgan) are okay. Most importantly “Stretch” is now a straight arrow for the girl he loves by pulling the world’s first reverse bank robbery.

Yellow Sky was a thoroughly enjoyable story because it felt surprisingly dynamic and even graphic for a 1940s western. Highlights include Anne Baxter slugging Gregory Peck and dishing out the ultimate insult that he smells bad.  Peck is such a commanding presence, and it’s fun to see him in a darker role. Baxter was also deadly in a very different way than her backstabbing Eve Harrington. Richard Widmark and John Russell were worthy adversaries while Charles Kemper was the token fat guy. And I still cannot get over how young and dare I say, scrawny Henry Morgan looks.

I must confess that I have never read The Tempest, but this story is supposedly based on that Shakespearean tale. Well, now I know.

4/5 Stars

 

The Razor’s Edge (1946)

06cc8-razors_edgeAdapted from the novel by Somerset Maugham, this drama films stars Tyrone Power, Gene Tierney, John Payne, Anne Baxter, Clifton Webb, and Herbert Marshall. The film opens after WW I with an air force vet who is engaged to a young socialite. They are in love and yet he wants to discover the meaning of life before he settles down. She reluctantly lets him go to Paris while she remains in the states. While Larry lives in Paris and travels to the Himalayas their childhood friend Sophie gets in a car accident which kills her husband and baby. Isabel had tried one last time to win Larry back but with that not working she decides to marry the affluent Grey instead. Soon we learn that Grey lost everything in the Crash and he had a nervous breakdown. In Paris Maugham meets his old acquaintances and Larry helps Grey with his problem. They then encounter a drunken Sophie in a Parisian night club. Larry also helps her and decides to marry her. Isabel will have none of it and she leads Sophie back into alcoholism only for us to find out later that she was murdered later on. With Elliot on his deathbed Larry also does him a favor and afterward he correctly ascertains that Isabel led Sophie to drink. He moves on content and she can only be consoled by Maugham. Some interesting questions were brought up but it doesn’t seem that Larry figured everything out completely.

4/5 Stars

All About Eve (1950)

f37d4-allabouteveEve Harrington (Anne Baxter) is a seemingly modest and conscientious girl who gets the chance of a lifetime. She is able to meet a great Broadway star (Bette Davis) as well as her close circle of friends. Soon she is helping this Margot Channing by taking care of errands and odd jobs. This ambitious girl finally convinces one of Margot’s friends Karen (Celeste Holm), to let her be an understudy. And so when Margot is detained the night of a show, Eve gets her chance at the big time. However, Eve soon shows a different side of herself; one of back-stabbing and blackmail. Through her manipulation, she meets a famous critic (George Sanders) and wins an award. However, he has her pegged and the truth becomes evident. By the end of the film, Eve seems to have fallen for the same trap that Margot had. This film was pretty good and featured a good cast including Thelma Ritter and a young Marilyn Monroe. As Davis exclaims, “fasten your seat belts!”

4.5/5 Stars