Five Graves to Cairo ★★★½

The British army in North Africa is retreating before the forces of German Field Marshall Erwin Rommell (Erich von Stroheim). Cpl Franchot Tone seeks shelter in a small hotel run by Akim Tamiroff. After the Germans arrive, Tone takes the name and position of a waiter killed in a German air raid. The body of the waiter is buried beneath the rubble in the basement.

The Germans, accepting Tone as the waiter, greet him as a friend, a German spy, working from the hotel and secretly sending information on British troop movements. Rommell plans to send him on to Cairo where he is expected to continue his spying.

The maid, Anne Baxter, has remained as the Germans approached. She hopes that the German officers will help her brother, a wounded French soldier, held in a German prison camp. Rommel will not help her, but a young German officer, Peter van Eyck, tells her that he is communicating with officers in Germany and will try to find out about her brother. He expects that she will be friendly to him in return.

Rommell entertains some captured British officers and informs them that the Germans had been preparing for the invasion of Egypt before the war. Rommell, himself, had buried war supplies in secret bunkers in the desert and only he has the map of the locations. Tone has identified himself to one of the British officers. This officer and Tone agree that Tone must copy the map and carry the information to the British.

Tension builds as Tone locates the map and tries to decipher it. An air raid sends everyone to the basement where the waiter’s concealed body is discovered by Van Eyck. Tone kills Van Eyck to keep him quiet. After the body is discovered, Baxter assumes the guilt so that Tone can proceed safely to Cairo.

Months later, the British retake much of Egypt, and Tone returns to the hotel. Tamiroff leads him to Baxter’s grave. She has paid the ultimate price for her bravery.

This suspenseful and well acted spy thriller was the second feature directed by Billy Wilder. Wilder and Charles Brackett updated the plot of the WWI Hungarian play, Hotel Imperial (1917) to WWII and added Rommel, impressively played by von Stroheim.