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5 Fingers
20th Century Fox Cinema Archives

5 Fingers
20th Century Fox Cinema Archives
1952 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 107 min. / Street Date February 13, 2014 / available through Amazon.com / 19.98
Starring James Mason, Danielle Darrieux, Michael Rennie, Oscar Karlweis, Walter Hampden.
Norbert Brodine
Original Music Bernard Herrmann
Written by Michael Wilson from the book by L.C. Moyzisch
Produced by Otto Lang
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

20th Fox gave the espionage genre two new twists in 1952. Although no longer frequently screened, the Tyrone Power picture Diplomatic Courier is a remarkably advanced Cold War spy chase film, with an American agent dodging Eastern-Bloc agents on trains all across central Europe. Its story of a man out on a limb, not knowing whom to trust, is more compelling than ever.

Also from Fox in 1952 came the excellent WW2 spy tale 5 Fingers, starring the irreplaceable James Mason as one of the slickest traitor-spies ever. It's set in 1944, in neutral Istanbul where the British and German ambassadors politely arrange to attend formal receptions at different times to avoid awkward encounters. The movie's source is a non-fiction book by L.C. Moyzisch, a diplomatic attaché who was stationed in the German Embassy in Ankara and is one of the participants in the drama.

The screenplay is by the esteemed Michael Wilson, a noted blacklistee who was barred from working almost immediately after this movie and George Stevens' classic A Place in the Sun. Wilson moved to Europe but still had to write anonymously due to State Department harassment; his passport was rescinded for a full decade while he racked up "invisible" credits on movies like The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell, Friendly Persuasion and The Bridge on the River Kwai. The Screen Actor's Guild awarded Wilson credit for these films posthumously.

Wilson's director Joseph L. Mankiewicz was then one of the hottest hyphenates in Hollywood. The movie abounds in superior dialogue given superb readings by James Mason. Mason's tenure at Fox included many movies beneath his talent, which he unfailingly raised several notches in quality just by dint of his imposing presence and vocal precision. He's remarkably good at putting German delivery boys in their place: "Why so nervous Moyzisch? This is the greatest day of your life. When you die Hitler will dip you in bronze and name streets after you!"  1

This true story is a cat 'n' mouse game played out in embassy anterooms and at fancy diplomatic receptions, as the Germans and British try to makes sense of a too-amazing-to-be-real breach of security involving top secret Brit documents. British Ambassador Sir Frederic Taylor (Walter Hampden) and Reich Ambassador Count Franz Von Papen (John Wengraf) take a strong interest in a particular Polish refugee, Countess Anna Staviska (Danielle Darrieux of The Earrings of Madame de...). Anna was once one of the wealthiest socialites on the pre-war continent, but now she's looking for a way to subsist. Then Von Papen's attaché L.C. Moyzisch (Oskar Karlweiss) is approached by a daring and suave Englishman who offers to sell top secret English diplomatic and war secrets, for high prices. The Germans take the mystery agent at his word. They dub him agent "Cicero" but are unable to trace his identity. It almost doesn't matter. The German security people, afraid to make a personally disastrous mistake, fail to act upon the stolen documents. Meanwhile, Brit security agent Colin Travers pays a visit to Ambassador Taylor, with the news that counter-agents have determined that someone close to Taylor has indeed been turning info over to the Nazis.

The culprit is Ulysses Diello (James Mason), Taylor's own trusted valet. Brilliant, daring and utterly self-confident, Diello continues to convince his employers of his loyalty while collecting a fortune from the Germans. To hide his cash and prepare for an escape to Rio de Janiero, Diello re-opens his relationship with Countess Staviska, whose late husband he once served. Diello even convinces Anna that the feeling they once shared was a personal attraction, and they become lovers. Staviska safeguards the money and secures forged passports -- just as both the English Travers and the new German investigator Col. von Richter (Herbert Berghof) zero in on Cicero's real identity. Will the clever Diello and Staviska continue to outwit their pursuers?

The completely believable 5 Fingers is a suspenseful spy tale enlivened by excellent performances. James Mason can turn a statement or a phrase any way he wishes, adding nuances of disdain, elitist hauteur, snide criticism or blunt honesty, all framed in brilliant understatement. Diello is studiously proper and passive with his Brit employers and has little trouble demolishing the phony guises and hypocrisy of his German clients. The final ironies (there are at least three major surprises) include a shocking admission by author Moyzisch of what the Germans did when Cicero's papers revealed the authentic landing location of the desperately coveted "D-Day" Operation Overlord.

Michael Rennie is neatly cast as the intelligent Travers; when he first arrives we can't help but think, "great -- they have Klaatu on the job now." Walter Hampden's Brit Ambassador is far less of a fuddy-duddy than he looks, and aids his counterspies' effort to ferret out the traitor. John Wengraf's German Ambassador is also no fool, and can only shrug his shoulders as Berlin refuses to act on what is obviously good stolen info. Danielle Darrieux has a complex character to play as well -- a woman unashamed to state that her only loyalty is to regaining some part of her lost wealth and social standing. She also seems quite vulnerable, and is happy to discover that the dashing Ulysses Diello is her perfect partner in high-risk crime.

The small parts are expertly covered by familiar faces: Richard Loo, Neyle Morrow, Michael Pate, Gene Roth, Otto Waldis. The alluring Hannelore Axman has a small role as a German secretary -- she previously played a Communist infiltrator in the notorious Cold War drama The Red Menace.

The film's exteriors were shot on location in Istanbul, Turkey, using clever doubles to make it look as if the principal players went overseas. I don't see any evidence that any did, but we barely notice.

5 Fingers deserves the description, "a thinking man's spy picture". Wilson and Mankiewicz go for a suspense that requires that the viewer pay close attention to what's said, and exactly what happens. When the action does pick up, with identities suddenly revealed and Istanbul erupting into a major chase scene, we can only conclude that we're seeing the full and true story.

The 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives DVD of 5 Fingers is a good transfer of a movie we were told had been passed over earlier for DVD because of "problems with the elements". The show has not been restored but plays well. The main titles are a bit soft, and here and there minor focus issues appear for a few seconds, perhaps due to shrunken or warped film struggling through the transfer machine or scanner. As the transfer does not look new, I'm thinking that the holdup was more likely legal in nature. One possible obstruction might have been the original Edith Piaf songs heard on Danielle Darrieux's phonograph. Publishing rights for much less prominent cues have held up more than one desirable studio film.

An original trailer is included. Of special note to music fans will be the presence of yet another coveted Bernard Herrmann score. Herrmann keeps his musical contribution fairly subtle throughout the picture, even during the chase scenes; it's as if he decided that the show works well on its own and doesn't need wall-to-wall musical support, as do the later CinemaScope attractions Beneath the 12-Mile Reef and Garden of Evil. That won't keep Herrmann fans from snapping up this release. When they do they'll find they've gotten a really great spy picture in the bargain.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, 5 Fingers rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: Trailer
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 21, 2014


1. A note from Correspondent Dick Dinman, 3.09.14:

Hey Glenn, Couldn't agree more with you regarding your evaluation of the superb 5 Fingers. The wonderfully gracious James Mason was the very first star I ever acted with and at the time he told me that 5 Fingers was his favorite American film. I think you'll be interested in his direct quotes about it in the book The Films of James Mason: "Even though Michael Wilson may have been accorded sole screenplay credit, valuable refinements and jokes were added by director Mankiewicz. I have not seen the film recently, but I used firmly to hold the view that of sensible spy films, as opposed to the ritualistic or nonsensical, 5 Fingers was the best." It comes as no surprise to me that the wittiest dialogue in the film, delivered with such incredible timing and grace by Mason, was actually written by Mankiewicz himself. Cheers, Dick

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

Text © Copyright 2014 Glenn Erickson

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