5 Fingers (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1952)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents 5 Fingers.

criterion logoBased on the true story of a World War II spy in neutral Turkey, 5 Fingers follows an ambitious and extremely clever valet (James Mason) who tires of being a servant and forms a plan to promote himself to rich gentleman of leisure by selling top-secret information from the British embassy to the Germans, including details about D-Day’s Operation Overlord.  The Nazis, his British employers, Allied intelligence, and a Polish refugee Countess are all manipulated by the valet code-named Cicero, even as agents and counter-agents close in around him.  One of the best war thrillers made, 5 Fingers is woven with patriotism, weariness, passion, and greed, spearheaded by the critically acclaimed script and direction of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, a suspenseful score from Bernard Herrmann, and a magnificent performance by Mason as the tightly controlled spy maintaining his cool ambitions even as his plans deteriorate.

Disc Features:

  • New 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • The music of 5 Fingers, an interactive essay by Christopher Husted of Bernard Herrmann’s estate
  • 1952 and 1955 Lux Radio Theatre performances of 5 Fingers with James Mason and his wife Pamela Mason
  • Operation Cicero, the 46-minute Hour of the Stars TV version starring Ricardo Montalbon and Peter Lorre
  • Inside Cicero, a new 30-minute feature on the real life Cicero, Elyesa Banza
  • Trailer
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring a new essay by film critic Philip Kemp, 1952 reviews by Bosley Crowther of the New York Times and Hollis Alpert of the Saturday Review, and behind-the-scenes photos of the film’s production

5 Fingers is loosely based on real life spy Elyesa Bazna, an Albanian who sold Allied secrets to the Germans during World War II while working as a valet to the British ambassador in Ankara, Turkey.  James Mason is 5 Fingers‘ star, playing the Banza-figure renamed as Ulysses Diello.  The film tells the story of Diello’s efforts to gain money and prestige (and maybe his former employer-turned-impoverished Countess’s admiration) by photographing secret Allied documents and selling them to German officials.  Diello is an unusual main character in so far as he is clearly a villain, but Mason’s inherent charm and Diello’s disdain for the Axis (including his belief that they will lose the war regardless of the secrets they purchase from him) makes the gentleman thief a charismatic scoundrel one can’t help but root for.  Tensions mount in the film as Diello’s need for funds increases while Allied efforts to identify him intensify and security efforts to protect their confidential information become stricter.  At the same time, Nazi paranoia regarding Cicero’s true identity and his motivation for selling confidential information makes Diello a loose end in the Axis’ view.  Squeezed by each side, the scheming valet seeks one last big score from the Germans before attempting his escape to South America.  5 Fingers ends up as a witty suspense film, full of cracking dialogue, heist sequences, chase scenes, double- and triple-crosses, and an unexpected twist-ending (no spoilers here).  Philip Kemp proposes that the film is properly seen as a kind of Hitchcock/Lubitsch amalgam.  Mankiewicz’s expert construction of suspense in 5 Fingers connects with the former straightforwardly.  With regard to the latter, the film trades bemused and urbane lovers with sophisticated diplomats too far removed from WWII to not view it as another embassy reception game, while also maintaining a premium on repartee and observing a narrative economy characteristic of Lubitsch.  5 Fingers deftly merges these two styles, using its liminal setting as a context for bored bureaucrats and gradually builds intrigue and tension until the film’s cleverly capping epilogue.

5 Fingers Poster5 Fingers seems to have been a charmed film.  German military attaché L. C. Moyzisch’s source book Operation Cicero was a hot commodity at its publication.  Its rights were sought by Alexander Korda, Arthur J. Rank, MGM, and 20th Century-Fox. Fox won out and named Michael Wilson as screenwriter and Henry Hathaway as director.  Wilson’s script was already developing positive anticipation when Mankiewicz came on board to touch it up.  Studio head Darryl F. Zanuck was so impressed with Mankiewicz’s significant reworking of the screenplay that he allowed Mankiewicz to takeover direction on the project.  Mason, just signed to a short-term contract and with some control over his selection of projects, was enthusiastic about the script and at the prospect of working with the newly assigned director.  Danielle Darrieux was a fortuitous replacement to a pregnant Micheline Presle, and the cast of 5 Fingers was rounded out with British actor Michael Rennie, stage veteran Walter Hampton, and a coterie of respected character actors.  Bernard Herrmann composed the film’s suspenseful score, doing extensive research to mix Eastern forms with Western classics like Wagner’s “Brunhilde’s Battle Cry” and Chopin’s Mazurka in A.  Surely Herrmann’s work on the film paved the way for his successful collaborations with Hitchcock later.  5 Fingers consequently proved to be a popular and critical success, earning the film Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Screenplay and winning the Golden Globe for Best Screenplay.

All of this makes the film’s lack of popular regard today all the more astounding.  Despite a celebrated director, composer, and cast, 5 Fingers has not maintained its popular regard nor does it command critical or historical attention.  It’s truly a shame for such an entertaining and accomplished film, making it an excellent candidate for rediscovery.  5 Fingers‘ contribution to Criterion would be significant.  Consider these numbers – with more than 650 spine numbers assigned in the Collection, there are no films by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, only 2 scores by Bernard Herrmann, only 3 films starring James Mason (2 being Eclipse titles), and 4 films featuring performances by Danielle Darrieux (with 1 title being an Essential Art House release).

100 Bullets 14Looking at 5 Fingers‘ original poster, with the bold, graphic hand extended outward and the trench-coated figure protecting an attaché case, I can’t help but think of Dave Johnson’s covers for the Vertigo Comics series 100 Bullets.  Johnson frequently used the hand graphic (the insignia of the series’ villainous secret society) and the briefcase (containing the titular 100 bullets) as recurring motifs in his cover designs.  Further, Johnson’s comic covers have a stark, evocative quality that perfectly compliments the period, while still being able to thoroughly modernize the imagery and create a commercially appealing cover treatment.  Given the Collection’s embrace of comic book artists for their cover and packaging designs, it’s somewhat surprising that Johnson hasn’t yet received the call.  His art appears in high demand within his industry, being able to work across all major companies and genres.  I’d love to see how Johnson could incorporate the exotic Turkish locale into a design for this spy thriller.

100 Bullets 73Credits:  To my knowledge, a North American VHS release of 5 Fingers existed but no disc version has properly been produced for Region 1/A.  My DVD copy is a region-free Korean edition, with a decent transfer but no special features.  The back cover summary is derived largely from the synopsis provided on the VHS packaging.  Christopher Husted is responsible for the interactive essay on Herrmann’s score for Criterion’s release of The Devil & Daniel Webster (William Dieterle, 1941) and wrote the liner notes on a CD collection of Herrmann scores that includes 5 Fingers.  The feature on Banza is entirely an invention, but a necessary one if this release of the film is to be considered definitive.  Philip Kemp provides only a brief comment in his 1996 article “Hitching Posts” on considering 5 Fingers a hybrid of Hitchcock and Lubitsch.  Kemp is a regular essay contributor to the Collection and a Criterion release of the film would provide him a perfect forum to elaborate on this intriguing approach to the film.

One thought on “5 Fingers (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1952)

  1. Prof. Ratigan September 6, 2016 / 4:21 pm

    This sounds great. Thanks for putting it on my radar.

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