FROM THE ARCHIVES: Five Fingers
Reviewed by Robert Cashill

Five Fingers (1952)

Five Fingers (1952)

Produced by Otto Lang; directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz; written by Michael Wilson; cinematography by Norbert Brodine; edited by James B. Clark; art direction by George W. Davis and Lyle R. Wheeler; music by Bernard Herrmann; starring James Mason, Danielle Darrieux, Michael Rennie, Walter Hampden, Jon Wengraf, and Oscar Karlweis. B&W, 108 min.,1952. A Fox Cinema Archives release available through Amazon.

Five years ago Warner Bros. went MoD (manufactured on demand) with the Warner Archive, which has since made available thousands of films and TV shows stashed away in its vaults, and has spawned an “Instant” channel online. The Archive also sells DVD-Rs of feature films, documentaries, and TV programs from HBO and Cinemax, the dormant MGM Limited Edition line, and the still-active Sony Pictures Choice Collection, and has revived out of print pressed DVDs of Warner Bros. and Paramount movies in the recordable format. Applied elsewhere, the “archive” concept has frustrated expectations, with Universal mostly using it to bring previously available titles back into print and Lionsgate never launching its promised program.

Fox Cinema Archives doesn’t lack for output; recent titles include Otto Preminger’s Forever Amber (1947) and Robert Aldrich’s Sodom and Gomorrah (1962). That’s the good news. The bad is that too many of them are shoddily produced, from ancient, worn elements; for some reason, the twenty-year-old widescreen laserdisc of the Aldrich picture offers a substantially better transfer than the pallid, pan-and-scan MoD. Five Fingers, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s urbane true-life spy thriller, may not warrant the supplements-laden Blu-rays his classics A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and All About Eve (1950) have received, but surely Fox might have done better by it than this soft, unsteady, cue-mark-riddled rendition.

The director and screenwriter Michael Wilson earned Oscar nominations for their adaptation of L. C. Moyzisch’s book Operation Cicero (1950). In neutral Turkey, in 1943, a man named Elyesa Bazna approached Moyzisch, a Nazi military attaché at the German Embassy in Ankara. Bazna was bartering secrets obtained from the British Embassy and, once a deal was struck and the code name of “Cicero” arranged, Moyzisch began transmitting top-secret documents to the high command, some of which touched on Operation Overlord and the D-Day landings the following year. But the Nazis, torn by infighting and fearful that Bazna was a British agent, made little use of the precious information.

For suspense, Wilson, who won a Golden Globe and a Edgar Mystery Writing Award for his screenplay, advances the time frame to 1944, adds a location-shot chase or two, and exaggerates the importance of the Overlord material, a minor part of Bazna’s transactions. (Moyzisch is demoted to a supporting part, played by Oscar Karlweis, and seems too dense to have written a book on the subject.) Wilson concentrates on Bazna (renamed Ulysses Diello), who is revealed to be an Albanian-born valet to the British Ambassador, and a fictitious character, the Countess Anna Staviska, the French widow of a Polish count, now living in penury in Ankara. Or, rather, Wilson and Mankiewicz, who rewrote the piece, the most memorable exchanges of which have Mankiewicz’s distinctly witty voice. (When Moyzisch asks his superior, the erudite German Ambassador Franz von Papen, why Berlin has chosen the code name, von Papen replies, “What surprises most is that von Ribbentrop has even heard of Cicero.”)

As Diello, James Mason, two years before defining roles in A Star is Born and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Danielle Darrieux, on the cusp of her sublimeMadame de… for Max Ophuls, bring a brittle, biting comedy to Five Fingers, distinguishing it from typical procedurals. “What I learned from Britain is the importance of an exterior,” Diello states, milking the indispensability and invisibility of a servant as he conducts his spy games for purely mercenary ends. In this, he harmonizes with Anna, who herself flirts with espionage (“the highest form of gossip”) to return to society and, for a small cut of the proceeds, helps her late husband’s former employee, who masquerades as a businessman. But a relationship that is temporarily equal in wartime can’t withstand class distinctions from the past—Diello can’t resist flaunting his ill-gotten gains, and Anna resents her servitude. “Get me a drink,” Anna says to Diello when they re-encounter one another; Diello demanding a drink from Anna later proves to be the turning point of the story.

Five Fingers was Mankiewicz’s last production under his Fox contract, and the final film, edited once he had departed, left him dissatisfied. Scenes with Michael Rennie as an investigating British agent are rote, and you wonder why he didn’t think to fingerprint the staff or the one and only safe where the documents were kept. But it makes a more than favorable impression, particularly when Diello’s maxim, “There’s nothing as real as money,” is refuted ironically at the close. That must have rung in Bazna’s ears as well—apparently he hit up Mankiewicz for cash during the shoot, then, while trying to make ends meet selling used cars and giving singing lessons in Istanbul, published his own account, I Was Cicero, in 1962. He died in 1970. Like the Fox disc of Five Fingers, the Cicero affair is still a bit murky.

Robert Cashill, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, is a Cineaste Editorial Board Member and the Film Editor of Popdose.com.

To purchase Five Fingers, click here.

Copyright © 2014 by Cineaste Magazine