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Snoopathon; A Blogathon Of Spies: “5 Fingers”

June 1, 2014

This post is my entry in the “Snoopathon: A Blogathon Of Spies” hosted by Fritzi (Movies Silently). Enjoy!

This Friday, June 6, marks the 70th anniversary of D-Day, when the Allies invaded Normandy. It’s easy to forget after all this time the Allies were desperate to conceal not only when the invasion would be taking place but where, and they tried to mislead the Nazis to that as well. Naturally, the Nazis were equally as desperate to find out this information. History, of course, has provided the outcome, but there has been a number of books and movies, both reality-based and speculative, on both the Nazis trying to find out and the Allies’ attempt to mislead them. One of the better examples of this was Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s film 5 Fingers, adapted by Michael Wilson from the book Operation Cicero by L.C. Moyzisch, a real-life attache to the German embassy in Turkey during WWII.

“Cicero” is the code name given to Ulysses Diello (James Mason), the valet to British ambassador Sir Frederic Taylor (Walter Hampden, who appeared briefly in Mankiewicz’s All About Eve). Early on in the film, Diello approaches Moyzisch (Oscar Karlweis) outside the German embassy, and promises to pass on film of top-secrets documents for money (£10,000 sterling for the initial roll, and £15,000 for each roll afterwards), with the condition that the Nazis never try and find out his identity (though he does admit to working at the British embassy). Naturally, of course, the Nazis, while willing to pay him as long as the information is good, do try to find out who he really is, especially since they’re afraid he might be a British plant. Complicating matters are British intelligence, in the form of Colin Travers (Michael Rennie), a counter-intelligence agent sent to Ankara to find out the source of the leak, and Countess Anna Staviska (Danielle Darrieux), widow to the former Polish ambassador to Britain, whom Diello had once served under, and whom Diello gets to help him (somewhat).

Diello (James Mason) visits Moyzisch (Oscar Karlweis).

This was a transitional film for Mankiewicz. It was the last film he made at 20th Century Fox, where he had been since the mid-40’s, since he and studio chief Daryl Zanuck were starting to clash with each other (as talented people with big egos are prone to do). Also, Mankiewicz, who had always been known for his dialogue than anything else (it’s no accident the film preceding this one was called People Will Talk, and Kenneth L. Geist’s biography of Mankiewicz is entitled Pictures Will Talk), was planning on writing and directing plays full-time for Broadway (though that didn’t pan out, it’s perhaps no accident Mankiewicz’s first film after leaving the studio was his adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar). Though according to Geist’s book, Mankiewicz had vowed only to direct movies he had written himself, when he came upon Wilson’s screenplay, Mankiewicz thought would be the perfect film to end his contract on, as he liked the story, and thought only the dialogue and a couple of story points needed polishing. Indeed, despite the fact this was a for-hire assignment, 5 Fingers ranks as one of Mankiewicz’s best films.

Mankiewicz and Wilson pay close attention to the mechanics of spying, not just in what Diello does to get the information, but in how that information is used. We see Diello taking a light bulb to use in a lamp in Sir Frederic’s study to get the best light to photograph the documents from Sir Frederic’s safe, and we see Diello cleaning up after himself to avoid suspicion. Indeed, everything is done so well the only time anything goes wrong is when he’s rushed and forced to work in haste. Having deduced the spy works in the embassy, Travers, with Sir Frederic’s permission, installs an alarm on the safe. Diello manages to get around that by disabling the circuit breaker that controls the electricity in the room. However, when he summarily dismisses the maid who’s come to clean the room, she decides to vacuum the hallway instead, and when she turns the circuit breaker back on before Diello is able to close the safe, he’s forced to flee. Diello has his own reasons for leaving the money he makes from the Germans with the Countess (a character, it should be noted, Wilson invented for the film), but this allows her to get a house, which makes an easier place to meet Col. Von Richter (Herbert Berghof), the Nazi who takes over for Moyzisch in meeting Diello, and who tells Diello about Operation Overlord (what the Allies called the D-Day invasion). The house also works as cover because, at the beginning of the film, we hear of the Countess’ money troubles (she offers her services to Count Von Papen (John Wengraf) as a German spy so she can get back the money and property the Germans took from her when they invaded France, though he rebuffs her). As far as how the intelligence is used, it’s usually a pattern in intelligence agencies when a defector or double agent with contested information comes forward, it causes an argument within the agency as to whether or not the information should be believed, and it’s no different here. Count Van Papen believes Cicero’s information to be true, and is disgusted by his superiors deliberately withholding intelligence that could have save people’s lives just to see if it’s true or not, while Von Richter and his superiors, despite the fact everything Diello has passed over turns out to be true, still believe him to be a British agent.

Diello at work.

Of course, being a Mankiewicz film, this is also a comedy of manners. Diello is of course enigmatic throughout, as befits not only a valet but a spy, and one of the ways this is accomplished is showing how witty he can be, especially when trying to put off Moyzisch and Col. Von Richter; when Von Richter wonders why Diello insists on being paid in British pounds if he’s helping the Nazis win the war, Diello counters, “By informing the man about to be hanged of the exact size, location and strength of the rope, you do not remove either the hangman or the certainty of his being hanged” (Wilson would claim later most of the dialogue, as well as the story, was his, but in Pictures Will Talk, Geist shows this to be false). The Countess also can spar with the best of them; when Count Von Papen asks her at the beginning why she’s not still in Poland, she replies, “Bombs were falling. I felt I was in the way”. Even Col. Von Richter, though more clumsy at it than the others, gets into the act; at a party given by the Countess (where he and Diello have arranged to meet), he poses as a Swiss businessman, and when the Countess (who knows exactly who he is) makes a remark about his claim to being a middle man, the Colonel replies, “We Swiss have been in the middle for hundreds of years”. And though Diello and the Countess speak more plainly to each other than they do to others, especially when Diello declares not only his attraction to her, but the fact he knows she’s attracted to him, there’s an element of wit to go along with the charged exchanges between them.

Mankiewicz was a devotee of Lubitsch (though they quarreled when Lubitsch served as executive producer of Mankiewicz’s feature directorial debut, Dragonwyck), and he also seems influenced by Oscar Wilde, though with more speeches than either of them had. Mankiewicz was often accused of overwriting (in his book Talking Pictures, Richard Corliss claims every word a character in Mankiewicz’s films says sounds as if two writers worked on it all night), but at his best, Mankiewicz makes the dialogue fit the milieu. And contrary to what you might think, the more plain-speaking characters, such as Travers, talk differently than the others. In Geist’s book, he quotes a conversation between Mankiewicz and Humphrey Bogart on the set of the film they did together, The Barefoot Contessa, where Mankiewicz argued that film dialogue should be heightened instead of “realistic” so that it sounded intelligent, but that he also knew how to distinguish between, say, Margo Channing’s long speeches in All About Eve and Birdie, her servant, making pithy remarks in the same film. Ironically enough, Mankiewicz seemed to have lost that ability by the time of The Barefoot Contessa, but he’s in fine form on this film. Of course, dialogue isn’t everything, and the story is gripping throughout; Mankiewicz and Wilson even manage to make the obligatory Code-enforced “crime never pays” ending feel true and right instead of tacked on.

Diello with the Countess Staviska (Danielle Darrieux).

Like many writers who turned director (or, in this case, writer/producers), Mankiewicz’s directing abilities were overshadowed by his scripts, and to be fair, Mankiewicz, in interviews, would complain about those who were obvious in their use of the camera, and said he tried to be simple when he used it. Yet simplicity shouldn’t be mistaken for being simple-minded. Mankiewicz, being a director-for-hire here, was not the first choice for this film. Henry Hathaway, who had become Fox’s go-to director for documentary-type thrillers that had become their specialty in the late 40’s (such films as The House on 92nd Street13 Rue Madeline and Kiss of Death), was the first choice, but for whatever reason, he was unavailable. Mankiewicz and cinematographer Norbert Brodine, in his next-to-last feature (he shot some of those Hathaway films, and had worked with Mankiewicz on Somewhere in the Night), use many of the real-life locations where the story took place, at least on the outside (the interiors were mostly sets). And while Mankiewicz claimed Zanuck butchered the climax, where Diello, after handing over the plans of Operation Overlord to Moyzisch, eludes both the British and the Germans in a chase scene, what survives is still suspenseful enough. Also, Brodine and Mankiewicz use light well; the reception scenes are all well lit, but the scenes where Diello is meeting with someone, or when he’s photographing Sir Frederic’s files, all look “realistic”, as they would have in a Hathaway film. Finally, Bernard Herrmann wrote the score, and while it might not be as recognizable, or as good, as his scores for Hitchcock or Harryhausen, it contributes to the suspense, particularly in that chase scene.

Mankiewicz also got good performances from his cast. Mason looked nothing like the real-life valet Diello was based on (Geist’s book quotes Mankiewicz as saying he looked like the personification of evil), but he carries himself both as a valet and someone who is smarter than he looks. He also handles Mankiewicz’s bantering dialogue well, especially in Diello’s scenes with Moyzisch (he chides Moyzisch for using the day Hitler took power as the combination to an embassy safe, guessing half of Germany does the same). While Darrieux is mostly (and rightly) remembered for her French films (particularly The Earrings of Madame De, which is arguably the best film she ever did), she had been acting in Hollywood since the mid-30’s, so she was used to it by then, but she proves adept to the challenge of delivering Mankiewicz’s bantering dialogue. However, she’s equally adept when she’s not talking, as with the ambiguous glance she gives after Diello embraces her at one point, which sets up an action later in the film. The other actors don’t get as much to work with (though Berghof, a real-life acting teacher along with his wife, Uta Hagen, has a couple of good moments), but they all fit their roles well. Of course, Operation Overlord went off on June 6, and the Nazis weren’t able to guess where and when it was going to take place. Of all the “what could have been” stories on that subject, 5 Fingers remains one of the better ones.


From → Movies

  1. I have added this one to my must-see list. Although, for some reason, I kept thinking of Our Man Godfrey as I read your essay. Thank you for sharing.

    • Thanks, Joe! I can see the comparison, though of course Godfrey and Diello are playing under markedly different circumstances.

  2. Thanks so much for taking part! As a devotee of overwritten dialogue (as long as it is not overperformed as well) I am rather fond of Wilder, Mankiewicz and Lubitsch. Enjoyed your review immensely.

    • Thanks, Fritzi! While there are times when overwritten dialogue doesn’t fit the film (which is why, for example, I find THE MISFITS a failure, albeit an interesting one), at their best, Mankiewicz’s films (and, of course, Lubitsch and Wilder’s) have intelligent dialogue that’s a pleasure to listen to.

  3. Looks like a good film- I love James Mason. Maybe I missed it in my first read, but what year is this movie?

  4. doriantb permalink

    Sean, I remember watching FIVE FINGERS a while back and enjoying it. True, Mankiewicz can be wordy, but it’s still a gripping film, including Danielle Darrieux. I’ve always liked the final scene (I won’t say more, so as not to spoil the surprise!)

    • Thanks, Dorian! I like the final scene as well, especially since it echoes a couple of earlier scenes, and it’s a clever way of complying with the Production Code without seeming like a cop-out.

  5. THANK YOU!! A few years ago, I saw the last half of this film and could not, for the life of me remember the name of it. I was enthralled with James Mason’s performance but, for some reason, was unable to find out on google what the film was. So I was thrilled to see it profiled here. Thanks again!

  6. Excellent! I love all the words – the ones in the movie and the ones in your review.

  7. Great post & such an excellent contribution to the blogathon! For what it’s worth, I don’t find it too wordy – although if that’s more to do with the director or actors, I’m not sure. I think it’s really stood the test of time, it’s just a shame a not-so-good film was released under the same name a few years ago as someone bought me the wrong version!

    • Thanks! Fortunately, this is now on DVD (or DVD-R, but still available), so you can remedy that. And yes, it has stood the test of time.

  8. really good movie, one of those “secret discoveries” you feel you have to recommend to others, you wrote a great post on it so I hope more people will seek it out

  9. I love this film so much! I watched it on th last day of 2012 and I was left speechless by the ending. Being a Brazilian, I was surprised when Mason left for Rio. By the way, his performance here is amazing.
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂

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