Billy Wilder’s third film, and his earliest that I’ve seen, comes the year (1943) before his first masterpiece. An excellently told war story has a British soldier inadvertently finding himself in a position of trust amongst Nazis (one of them somewhat high-ranking) set up in a hotel in Egypt. It’s like a mix of Casablanca and Inglourious Basterds. Casablanca for its peripheral setting and foregrounding of individual relations, and propagandistic purposes (in this case much more interesting given the director’s history). Basterds for its mix of humour and suspense. Wilder is a master of both, and it’s no surprise to find that Five Graves to Cairo is one of Tarantino’s favourite war films.
What sets this back from being a Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole or The Apartment is a script that only glances at the profoundly meaningful at its disposal. One discerns that Wilder didn’t yet have the courage to make his protagonist a relatable anti-hero, or to build towards a devastating ending. Even Double Indemnity had its gas chamber finale removed, and while Cairo packs a small punch its insistence on a heroic lead disappoints slightly.
Still, it’s not often that your only real criticism for a film is that it wasn’t profound enough.