Five Graves to Cairo (1943) and The Desert Fox

five graves to cairo.png

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.

five graves to cairo 2.png

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

 

Dancing Lady (1933): Joan Crawford & Clark Gable

Screenshot 2020-03-27 at 84300 AM

You know the drill. In the throes of the Depression, the idle rich fritter their wealth away at such social events as striptease and then attend the ensuing night court until they get bored with the whole affair. Tod Newton (Franchot Tone) is one of their ilk, but he’s more engaged than others thanks to the pretty girl on the other side of the courtroom.

Down-on-her-luck Janie Barlow (an effulgent Joan Crawford) is a casualty of a police raid undertaken on the saucy dancing joint she’s been working at. Beyond being smitten, Tone (Crawford’s real-life husband for a time), is invested in helping give her a leg up, ulterior motives notwithstanding.

If it’s not obvious already, Dancing Lady has a premise to rival Warner Bros’ superlative successes with risque backstage, rags-to-riches musicals like 42nd Street. So, while the plot is nothing special, it somehow taps into Crawford’s innate sense of ambition as an actress.

There’s a feeling she’s not entirely acting a part; she’s driven to make it to the top. It’s this impetus that leads her to stick to “thousand-to-one-shots” over any man — even Park Avenue know-it-alls swimming in cash. She’s going to make it of her own accord. She’s going uptown toward the art world.

The script purposefully bears down on the vernacular to differentiate the patricians from the plebians and with it Janie’s attempts to make something of herself — first, through improved diction and then a newly cultivated wardrobe.

Without knowing it, she’s probably aspiring to the entertainment funded by such nincompoops as Mr. Bradley and his roly-poly walking gag of a son Junior. They are a father and son comic echo chamber if you will, and they also hold the purse strings for one of the industry’s latest productions.

It’s not altogether glamourous stuff but Patch Gallagher (Clark Gable) and his taskmaster-like regimen, turning chorus girls into a full-fledged production, is the “big time” for someone like Janie. The only problem is getting an audition. The head honcho has his right-hand man Steve (Ted Healy) run interference for him — it didn’t go so well for a wisecracking Eve Arden. Still, the “Dutchess” is an assiduous gal if there ever was one.

Director Robert Z Leonard is evidently enamored with his whip pans, but he does evoke pace rather well, especially when Crawford tries furiously to catch up with Gable as he streaks down the sidewalk. While it’s a cliched rom-com montage that would be recycled time-and-time again, it still stands out within the context of the film. The leads don’t speak a word to one another for several minutes at least.

In what feels like a non-sequitur, the Three Stooges make a lightning-quick cameo. Well, they actually show up twice, posing as stagehands. It’s true they feel completely at odds with Joan Crawford’s story arc, but it’s delightful to see them, even momentarily, as she continues her ascension. This is only to be surpassed by the appearance of Fred Astaire! (And I nearly forgot to mention Nelson Eddy, so there you go).

Tone continues to go to great lengths to win her affections, secretly bankrolling her star vehicle, dancing and dining her, and flaunting his swimming pools. When all else fails, he resorts to taking her to Cuba, conveniently far away from the other man in her life and the career she’s chosen.

The red-hot sparks are given a literal gymnasium to work themselves out in — positively buzzing between Crawford and Gable — as they get in their morning exercise to keep their svelte dancing figure and brawny physique respectively. It goes unspoken, but an unwritten rule of storytelling tips us off that antagonism usually denotes love. They have copious amounts ready-made to dish out at one another.

Unfortunately, by this point, the story gets less and less interesting by the minute as it continues to sink into the preconceived notions of the genre. In other words, what we suspect to be derivative proves itself to be precisely that. It speaks to the charisma of the stars who make the well-trod paces watchable, even engaging, and there are a few momentary delights around the fringes.

The final extravaganza is a not-too-veiled Busby Berkeley knockoff infatuated with beer. The surreal foray that follows offers up a luxuriant carousel of beauties and giant fan blades strapped with women — not to mention the surreal moment when a host of old maids go behind a curtain only to be dismantled to come out as gorgeous dancing ladies.

With Fred Astaire showcased prominently alongside Joan in a very fluffy ensemble, it felt strangely out of place. Astaire and Rogers had yet to be placed together and it’s true their trajectories could have been so much different. I don’t know a thimbleful about dancing, but at the very least, Crawford has an earnestness on taps. Though, she’s not quite Ginger Rogers either. No one ever said she was.

With Tone’s gigolo scorned and “The Duchess” going in to check on her dejected “Duke” after their stunning success, there’s a sense the working-class heroes are being reunited in a triumphant victory for all the blue-collar folks in the audience. In other words, it’s not just Depression-era pap, there’s this genuine element of wish fulfillment.

The movie is gracious enough to supply one last obligatory scene between Crawford and Gable for contemporary audiences. Because there are a lot of distractions (and some unique surprises like Astaire), but the romantic chemistry is present and delivered on a silver platter with the kiss that the whole movie’s been culminating to. Surprising, I know. What’s the axiom? Give the people what they want? Dancing Lady is case and point.

3.5/5 Stars

The Lives of Bengal Lancers (1935): Colonial Comaderie Sullied by Hitler

the lives of a bengal lancer 1.png

In the imperialist traditions of the likes of Tarzan The Ape Man (1932), Gunga Din (1939) and even Lawrence of Arabia (1962) comes The Lives of Bengal Lancers. We cannot take the era or the colonial sentiments for granted like the contemporary viewer did since we must reconcile with the complicated filter hindsight lends.

It’s a bit like an old Cowboy and Indians picture except instead we have lancers and Indians. In theory, our allegiances lie solely with the dominant sides, and the rebels have our ire because revisionist filmmaking had yet to be created. This is the victor’s myth.

Director Henry Hathaway in later years would be remembered as a veteran of both crime pictures and classic John Wayne westerns including True Grit. The Lives of Bengal Lancers was his first formidable success, and the action and adventure itself are frankly quite thrilling.

Gary Cooper, as one of American’s dashing action heroes of the day, plays our protagonist MacGregor, a rough-edged soldier who nevertheless conceals the age-old heart of gold. A prime example comes when he makes up some excuse to send a new recruit to call on his father so they can talk in confidence. The boy has yet to see his flesh and blood face-to-face without constant rules and regulations getting between them.

Actually, we have two new recruits who come aboard: Forsythe (Franchot Tone) a glib sportsman who finds great relish in crossing wills with MacGregor and then dashing Lieutenant Stone (Richard Cromwell) still wet behind the ears. His father is the commander of the entire outpost. A journeyman soldier, “Old Ramrod” Stone (Guy Stander) is an incorrigible stickler for duty and discipline.

the lives of a bengal lancer 2

But the task at hand is the apprehending of a charismatic gunrunner and local outlaw Ahmad Khan (Douglass Dumbrille), who subsequently holds great power over the territory. The favored sport of “Pig Sticking” provides a handy cover for snooping around.

Most delightful of all is the one-upmanship fostered between our two manly specimens played by Cooper and Tone. The constant friendly competition between the blunt Canadian straight-arrow and the more polished and tempered “Blues Man” brought up in Britain is one of the film’s finer assets.

But of course, the inevitable happens and our heroes get captured by Khan. The famed line misstated on numerous occasions is actually, “We have ways to make men talk.” However, it feels anticlimactic considering.

It’s also difficult to decide if it’s to the film’s credit or not, but the villain, played by the white actor Douglas Dumbrille, is not trying to hide it. He is educated and resists playing up some savage image. He leaves that to all his underlings who do his every bidding.

While imprisoned, our heroes spend their idle time, outside of being tortured, playing at cockroach races and letting their stubble grow out. Once again, it represents the very best of the film instilled by the performances of Cooper and Tone opposite one other. Because everyone else we can easily see in any of these old adventure epics. It feels like standard stuff. They are not.

Certainly, the story teases out this issue between the duties of a soldier and the scruples of a man with inbred common decency. Should the family be sacrificed for the sake of the outfit? Is a man who has poured everything into his military career because he believes in regulation fit to be praised and venerated? The commander’s appreciative colleague (C. Aubrey Smith) lauds his actions acknowledging, “Love or death won’t get in the way of his duty.” Whether that is an entirely good thing remains to be seen.

Of course, we see analogous themes in even some of John Ford’s pictures like Fort Apache and specifically Rio Grande. The latter film has the same father-son dynamic playing out, except inside of conveniently killing off the spouse to streamline the conflict, that film actually digs into the themes more definitively. Anyone who has seen the film will agree Wayne and Maureen O’Hara’s relationship is the most interesting dynamic. A close second is the camaraderie of the soldiers.

In The Lives of Bengal Lancers, again, we have no such relationship, so the film is at its best with the soldiers sharing their lives together. One must note while the western might be dead, these old adventure yarns feel even more archaic. This brings up a host of other issues to parse through.

Watching the film unfold we cannot know for sure if we are on the right side of a righteous or unjust war; the underlying problem is the film does not leave it open. It’s already accepted who the conquers and heroes will be. I have nothing against the likes of Gary Cooper and Franchot Tone. I rather like them. But I can’t help but feel their team is playing a bit unfairly. The deck is stacked in their favor.

This ties into another notable caveat to make the viewer wary because Lives of a Bengal Lancer was purportedly a favorite of Hitler. In its digressions, he saw agreeable conclusions to inspire his own empire — the Third Reich — namely an unswerving duty to country along with elements of racial superiority.

Because it is these Brits with their bravery and know-how who are able to hold off the hordes of enemies. Their valor in itself is not an issue but placed up against their enemy, it is slightly troubling. The fact Hitler made it compulsory viewing to members of the SS is another level of bone-chilling. It’s hard to look at the picture in the same light after such a revelation.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: The Phantom Lady (1944)

phantom-lady-1Robert Siodmak might not be the foremost of lauded directors, but it’s indisputable that film noir as a genre, a movement, a style, whatever you want to call it, would be a lot less interesting without him.

Phantom Lady is a perfect illustration of that fact as it takes a simple plotting device and rides it through the entire story to a fitting conclusion. It’s not a taut thriller or really anything of the kind but the characters and even the cinematic choices make it a surprisingly shadowy delight.

As the title suggests, any explanation of the narrative must begin and end with this phantom lady who, if you want to use storytelling terms, is the MacGuffin, the entity driving the plot forward to its final end. She’s necessary but as we might predict she’s at the same time integral to the story and not at all important.

Because the fact that she is missing is simply a pretense that leads to a response from our hero. And at first, our hero seems pretty obvious, the handsome down on his luck Joe with a pencil mustache (Alan Curtis). Once upon a time, I confused him with another noir regular Brian Dunlevy but no more. Anyways, our actual hero comes to the fore after the inciting incident. This man Scott Henderson all of a sudden comes back from a crummy night at the theater to find himself accused of strangling his wife. The cops seem to have a guilty until proven innocent modus operandi. True, the eyewitnesses for his alibi seem knee deep and yet everyone has hushed up, including a bartender, a jazz drummer, a flamboyant performer. Worst of all his female companion for the evening has vanished into thin air.

With no alibi, Scott still sticks to his ridiculous story that no one believes and he winds up sentenced for the murder of his wife. If you’re still following, it’s at this juncture where the story really begins. Henderson’s plucky secretary “Kansas” (Ella Raines) is smitten with her boss and determined to prove his innocence. So she becomes our intrepid noir hero digging around in the sleazy bars and dance halls, tracking down possible leads. A tight-lipped bartender is subjected to her merciless tailing and she even ingratiates herself to a swinging jazz drummer (Elisha Cook Jr.) who can really make his sticks fly.

They get her closer to the trail but each one becomes a successive dead end. She gains some encouraging allies in the initially skeptical detective Burgess (Thomas Gomez) as well as Scott’s best friend who has just returned from a trip to South America (Franchot Tone). Together they try and wrap up the loose ends. Of course, as an audience, the dramatic irony sets up the tension as we know what’s going on behind the scenes. So this is still partially a mystery as the search for the phantom lady continues but the joke’s really on us because soon enough we know what’s happening. However, whether it’s too late for our heroes is quite another question altogether.

Siodmak does well to develop a stylized atmosphere and there are some especially intriguing touches. The foremost is how many sequences, including the tailing sequence, function without music and yet jazz is utilized in a frenzied interlude that is almost unheard of in noir for its sheer vivacity. It’s oddly disconcerting, the juxtaposition suggesting this utter contrast between personified joy and the darkness that is seeping into the story. After all, a man is about to be sentenced to death. Jazz certainly does not fit the mood.

There’s also the paradigm of the noir working girl played perhaps most iconically by the audacious Ella Raines. In many ways, this is her film and she’s as good and almost better than many a gumshoe and insurance investigators. It’s a role that Raines embodies with great resolve and a certain amount of drive that we can appreciate in a female character of that day and age. She’s far from an objectified figure because she has brains and desires of our own — even if they are all for the well-being of a man.

It also should be noted that this was the first production credit for pioneering British screenwriter Joan Harrison. She was only one of only three woman producers in Hollywood at the time and this is a film that she could certainly be proud of with an impressive noir heroine.

3.5/5 Stars

Phantom Lady (1944)

PhantomladyThe film uses the motif of a mysterious lady who cannot be found as the jumping off point for this Film-Noir. It is this so called phantom lady who Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) meets at a bar after having a spat with his wife. They lift each others spirits and part ways. Returning home, he is met by the police inspector (Thomas Gomez), who found that Henderson’s wife was strangled to death. Scott is the prime suspect and now he needs his alibi which seemed so airtight before.

She truly has vanished and no one remembers her so Henderson is on the verge of the death penalty. It is his smitten secretary Carol (Ella Raines) who takes up his cause. She retraces his steps interrogating a bartender and wheedling information out of a puny drummer (Elisha Cook Jr.). Soon an old friend (Franchot Tone) of Scott’s returns from South America and everything gets a little more interesting.

Phantom Lady stars a cast of only a couple recognizable names, however Robert Siodmak does a decent job at making this noir interesting and it is certainly worth a watch.

3.5/5 Stars