Most agree that 20th Century-Fox's backing of CinemaScope seriously damaged the company's aesthetic tastes. During the late 1940s and early ‘50s the studio made some of its best films: Gentleman's Agreement, Unfaithfully Yours, Twelve O'Clock High, Broken Arrow, All About Eve, etc., while after introducing CinemaScope the company turned to empty-headed spectacle: Demetrius and the Gladiators, Prince Valliant, The Egyptian, and so forth. Among those pre-‘scope titles lies a real gem, 5 Fingers, a suspenseful, intelligent, and often surprising espionage thriller starring James Mason, written by soon-to-be-blacklisted Michael Wilson, with additional uncredited dialogue by the film's celebrated director, Joseph L. Mankiewicz. The movie, though fictionalized, is based on real-life spy Elyesa Bazna, and the movie's approach to this material is quite unusual in several ways.
A DVD release was, reportedly, held up by film elements issues and possibly music rights issues as well (Edith Piaf songs supplement Bernard Herrmann's fine score), but in any case it finally arrives via Fox Cinema Archives. After praising their superb transfer of Margin for Error (1943) a few weeks ago, I found myself immensely disappointed by the old, woefully inadequate transfer here. It's extremely soft and muddy, with warping and wobbling issues to boot.
The story is set in neutral Turkey circa 1944, where impoverished Countess Anna Staviska (Danielle Darrieux, The Earings of Madame de..., The Young Girls of Rochefort), the French widow of a Polish count, offers her services as a spy to German Ambassador Franz von Papen (John Wengraf), solely to reestablish her fortune. He politely declines.
Later that same evening Moyzisch (Oskar Karlweis), the German Embassy attaché, is approached by a man, Diello (James Mason), with an extraordinary offer: rolls of film containing most secret documents which he offers to sell one-by-one for 20,000 British pounds apiece, in deliveries spread over several months. Initially dubious about the mysterious man's claims, Moyzisch confers with von Papen who agrees to invest 20,000 pounds on the first roll just in case the documents prove valuable.
And indeed they do, though Berlin-based Gestapo Col. Von Richter (Herbert Berghof) continually questions the man's motives and the authenticity of further documents, believing Diello, whom they code-name Cicero, to be a double agent whose ultimate aim may be provide false intelligence, particularly documents concerning the inevitable Second Front, "Operation Overlord." Diello gives every appearance of being a well-bred British aristocrat.
Meanwhile, Diello approaches Anna, offering her 5,000 pounds to hide his steadily growing income in her well-established bank account and, instructing her to rent a villa, to provide him with a more secure meeting place for the handover of rolls of 35mm film and the exchange of cash.
The smart, savvy film is dependent on its half-dozen or so major plot twists, none of which I'll reveal here. Mason, who became a major and prestigious star at Fox following stardom in British films of the mid- and late ‘40s, is superb as he almost always was, and binds the film together. His role makes an interesting contrast to his puppet master spy in Hitchcock's later North by Northwest, in which he was suave and coolly intelligent, a characterization Mason could do in his sleep. In 5 Fingers his role is much more complex, an intelligent but entirely money- and class-driven apolitical character, supremely but realistically confident but not arrogant. His single-minded spy has planned his theft and sale of these invaluable documents down to the last detail, foreseeing nearly every possible obstacle, and his handling of the German buyers down and up the chain of command is one of the film's many highlights, with much Mankiewiczian dialogue throughout.
The morally ambiguous Anna is equally well played by Darrielle, one of France's all-time great stars and, at nearly 97, still happily with us. Without revealing anything the film ends in a uniquely satisfying way that involves her character, one otherwise absent from the last 20 minutes of the film.
Though Mason's differs markedly from his North by Northwest character, in other respects 5 Fingers resembles Hitchcock's best thrillers. It's to the film's credit that Diello generates as much sympathy as he does, given that his motives are entirely financial and the secrets he sells could seriously damage the Allied effort (though Diello, in insisting upon British pounds rather than German marks, appears confident just who will emerge victorious). Toward the end the audience finds itself rooting for Diello in spite of everything, and film is full of wonderful irony throughout.
Except for Michael Rennie (The Day the Earth Stood Still), another fine British actor whose career, unlike Mason's, would be seriously damaged by Fox's move toward those empty-headed CinemaScope spectacles, 5 Fingers is populated by European actors generally unfamiliar to American audiences, adding to its authenticity. Additionally, second unit footage was shot on location in Turkey, supposedly at the actual locations where the real Cicero conducted business.
Video & Audio
Fox's murky, clearly ages-old transfer of 5 Fingers disappoints. It's extremely wobbly during the opening titles and first few scenes, and later on the warped film elements used cause the film to waver slightly in-and-out of focus. Mostly though it's simply washed out and depressingly soft, looking more like video than film. The mono audio, English only with no subtitle options, is okay. The only Extra Feature is a clever, tantalizing trailer that doesn't give the show away.
Not recommended because of the poor transfer but highly recommended as a movie, split the difference and 5 Fingers is Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.