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WWII Billy Wilder thriller debuts on Blu 4.5 Stars

Though he got his start in Germany, writer-director Billy Wilder would really make his mark in the Hollywood film industry after leaving Europe following the rise of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany. After paying his dues as a screenwriter, he made his directorial debut (as a way to protect his scripts) with the screwball comedy The Major and the Minor (1942). For his follow up, he changed tracks with the topical WWII drama Five Graves to Cairo. Though originally released by Paramount, Universal (the current rights holder) has licensed the movie to Kino for its Blu-ray debut.

Five Graves to Cairo (1943)
Released: 12 Jul 1943
Rated: Approved
Runtime: 96 min
Director: Billy Wilder
Genre: Thriller, War
Cast: Franchot Tone, Anne Baxter, Akim Tamiroff, Erich von Stroheim
Writer(s): Charles Brackett (screenplay), Billy Wilder (screenplay), Lajos Biró (play)
Plot: During World War II, an undercover British soldier tries get word to the Allies that the Germans have tons of supplies buried in five excavations across Egypt.
IMDB rating: 7.3
MetaScore: N/A

Disc Information
Studio: Paramount
Distributed By: Kino Lorber
Video Resolution: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
Audio: English 2.0 DTS-HDMA
Subtitles: English SDH
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 1 Hr. 36 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-ray
Case Type: Blue keep case
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Region: A
Release Date: 09/17/2020
MSRP: $24.99

The Production: 4.5/5

Following the defeat of the British at Tobruk in June 1942, Corporal John “J.J.” Bramble (Franchot Tone) is the lone survivor of a tank crew from the battle. Arriving at the Empress of Britain hotel in the small oasis town of Sidi Halfaya, Bramble is taken in by the nervous owner Farid (Akim Tamiroff) and the cynical French chambermaid Mouche (Anne Baxter). When the advancing German troops arrive at the hotel to make it the command post for Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (Erich von Stroheim), Bramble assumes the identity of the hotel’s dead waiter and soon finds himself immersed in the world of espionage and in the middle of a crucial plot in the North African campaign; it’s a war of wills and wits that could end up changing the tide of World War II…

Five Graves to Cairo is unique among WWII movies released during the conflict as it’s both like and unlike similarly themed films released during the period. For instance, the movie updates the Lajos Biro play Hotel Imperial (which Paramount had previously filmed under that title in 1927 and 1939) to modern day setting, giving it a relevant and topical feel. Also, while most WWII movies of the time play up the propaganda angle, here – with the exception towards the end of the movie – the plot is amazingly free of it and even throws in a sly blend of wit and suspense. Finally, under Billy Wilder’s assured direction, the tension and pace never lags and a top notch cast all give wonderful performances to bring the story to life. Although not widely mentioned today, Five Graves to Cairo is still a brilliant little World War II movie, brimming with sly humor and well mounted suspense, one that would help to firmly cement Wilder as a top notch Hollywood director with a great degree of versatility.

As the British soldier who has to masquerade in order to survive, Franchot Tone is given one of his best roles; prior to this movie, he made a little Hollywood history by being one of three leads to be nominated for the Best Actor Oscar (alongside Clark Gable and Charles Laughton) for the same film – by now, you’ve probably guessed Frank Lloyd’s Mutiny on the Bounty (1935). In one of her earliest onscreen appearances, Anne Baxter got a plum role as the seemingly cynical housemaid who soon reveals her true heroism; she would eventually graduate to more plum roles such as an Oscar winning turn in The Razor’s Edge (1946) and the eponymous character in All About Eve (1950). Formerly known as a demanding director during the Silent Era and even adorned with the nickname “The Man You Love to Hate”, Erich von Stroheim has one of his best onscreen performances as the Desert Fox himself, Erwin Rommel; his other best known acting appearances include Jean Renoir’s The Great Illusion (1937) and – reuniting with Billy Wilder – Max the butler in the timeless Sunset Blvd. (1950). Rounding out the cast here are Akim Tamiroff as the nervous hotel proprietor Farid, Peter van Eyck as the slightly suspicious Lt. Schwegler, Fortunio Bonanova as the music loving Italian general Sebastiano, and uncredited appearances from Miles Mander and Konstantin Shayne as – respectively – the British colonel who ropes Bramble into discovering Rommel’s plans and a German major taking part of Rommel’s forces.

Video: 4.5/5

3D Rating: NA

The movie is presented in its original 1:37:1 aspect ratio for this release. Film grain is organic with fine details, gray scale and shadows all given a faithful representation here. There’s very minimal instances of issues like dirt, scratches, tears, or reel change markers here, which means that this is likely the best the movie will ever look on home video and an improvement over previous home video releases.

Audio: 5/5

The film’s original mono soundtrack is presented on a DTS-HD Master Audio track for this release. Dialogue is both clear and strong, with sound effects and Miklós Rózsa’s suspenseful score given equal clarity and strength; there’s little to no problems like crackling, hissing or distortion present here. Overall, this release represents both an improvement over previous video releases and likely the best the movie will ever sound on home video.

Special Features: 3.5/5

Commentary by film historian Joseph McBride – Recorded for this release, McBride shares some details about the film but also goes over the larger context in which the film resides in the Wilder canon.

Theatrical Trailer (2:13)

Bonus KLSC Trailers – A Foreign Affair, Witness for the Prosecution, One, Two, Three, Irma la Douce, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Avanti! & The Front Page

Overall: 4.5/5

As one of the most unique WWII movies of all time, Five Graves to Cairo demonstrated Billy Wilder’s versatility as a director and would cement his path for the rest of his career. Kino has done full justice to this brilliantly underrated movie with a superb HD transfer and a very insightful commentary track to accompany it. Very highly recommended.

Amazon.com: Five Graves to Cairo [Blu-ray]: Anne Baxter, Erich von Stroheim, Franchot Tone: Movies & TV

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HawksFord

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Thanks for the review. I just watched this one and really enjoyed it. The story is tightly focused on a few characters in a difficult situation while at the same time dealing with major issues of personal responsibility and morality.
 
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