A lone tank is moving through the desert. As it goes up and down hills, the dead occupants flop backward, then forward. One man turns out to be alive. He calls for someone to fix the exhaust – it’s hard to breathe. No one responds. He struggles to the entry hatch in order to get clean air, then falls from the tank which continues on without him. He gets to his feet and tries to run after the tank , but he can’t keep up and falls again. As he lies on the sand, losing consciousness once more, we can see his British Army ID tag: J J BRAMBLE. He rouses and starts walking. We know he will survive: Bramble is played by the star of the film, Franchot Tone.
He arrives at a cluster of buildings, one medium-sized, the others small. A decorative sign has been painted on the larger building: Hotel Empress of Britain. Bramble speaks to a plant on the porch, then goes inside and talks to the desk (nobody there). Then two people join him, and while he talks sensibly, he continues to focus over their heads. They are Farid, the Egyptian owner of the hotel (Akim Tamiroff), and Mouche, the French maid (Anne Baxter). He collapses as Mouche says, “Our new guests”, and the Germans drive up to the front of the hotel.
Farid drags Bramble behind the desk, where he remains while the occupiers express their needs, and ask questions. Farid says he and Mouche are the only ones left. One of the Germans has stayed there before, so lying is out of the question; as each employee is asked after Farid tells the truth. One waiter left after last night’s bombing, the cook ran off some days past, and the other waiter died in the basement when it caved in because of the bombs, and so on. Bramble comes to, but is smart enough to keep quiet, and when he can be rescued, he becomes Farouk, the waiter buried in the cave-in. Farid tells the Germans that he dug himself out.
The Germans are led by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel himself, played by Erich von Stroheim himself. Some of the high-ranking Germans know about Farouk, because he is a German spy! But luckily none of them has actually seen him before.
Now due to his trusted position Bramble finds out how Rommel expects to win in the desert this time, after having failed before. There are “five graves” where thousands and thousands of gallons of petrol, water, and ammunitions are buried. Since keeping an army supplied in the desert is so problematic, it has always been the sticking point preventing a successful invasion, but back in 1937 a German archeological expedition brought the supplies in and buried them in five secret locations. Only Rommel knows where, and Bramble can’t leave until he figures it out. But the German High Command wants Farouk in Cairo for his next assignment, so Bramble has only a few hours before he will join a convoy.
The movie is very suspenseful and is also very claustrophobic, since during Bramble’s time at the hotel there are almost no exterior shots at all. In addition to the four stars named, Fortunio Bonanova plays an Italian general, much disrespected by the Germans, and Peter Van Eyck plays the officer most suspicious of “Farouk” and most lustful after Mouche. The screen play is by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, based on the play “Hotel Imperial” by Lajos Biro. The music score is by one of my favorite film composers, Miklos Rozsa, and Billy Wilder directed.
More: After the main credits, the movie begins with a title card that says: “In June 1942 things looked black indeed for the British Eighth Army. It was beaten, scattered, and in flight. Tobruk had fallen. The victorious Rommel and his Afrika Korps were pounding the British back and back toward Cairo and the Suez Canal.”