Much as I enjoy all the gadgetry and technology that seems to have become part and parcel of the espionage film over the years it’s refreshing nevertheless to watch something where the spy uses nothing more advanced than a pocket camera to accomplish his goal. 5 Fingers (1952) is just such a film, a slow burning suspense yarn that concentrates on character and the gradual building of tension. The fact that it’s supposedly based on a true story makes the whole, seemingly unlikely, series of events even more intriguing.
The story takes place in Ankara, Turkey during WWII and tells the story of an amazing scam carried out under the noses of the British embassy staff. Diello (James Mason) is an Albanian employed as a valet to the British ambassador, and is a man of intelligence, culture and ambition who realises the unique opportunity afforded him by his current employment. Not only is he the trusted companion of the senior diplomat, but he also has easy access to countless documents of the highest classification that routinely cross his master’s desk. To a patriotic man, or even a man of integrity, this might be regarded as a privilege but nothing more. However, Diello is neither; he is a pragmatist with two aims in life – a) to win the heart of the aristocratic widow of a former employer, and b) to have sufficient funds to emulate the life of a South American gentleman he once caught sight of in Rio. With this in mind, he approaches a German diplomat and makes an offer that’s hard to believe and even harder to turn down. He promises to ensure the delivery of a continual stream of top secret documents, but at his price and on his terms. He thus becomes a privately employed agent of the Nazis, under the code name Cicero, and the money starts to roll in. But, as I said, Diello is a very clever man, clever enough to know that he cannot keep popping around to the German embassy and hope to remain unnoticed. Needing both a partner and a safe meeting place, he strikes a bargain with an impoverished Polish countess (Danielle Darrieux) for whom he’s been carrying a torch. In return for funding her lifestyle Diello gets to use her home as a cover for meeting and carrying out transactions with a variety of high ranking Nazis. Of course such a scheme can’t last indefinitely and Diello eventually finds out that betrayal can be a double-edged sword.
5 Fingers came out a mere seven years after the end of WWII and when you bear that fact in mind it’s quite surprising that the character of Diello is one the viewer actively roots for. Although it’s made clear that Diello is spying out of a desire for money and cares nothing for political ideology, the truth is that it’s Mason who makes the character such an appealing one. Both the British and German authorities are treated with a kind of suave condescension by the man. He always appears the master of his own destiny and, even with the earth falling away beneath him, you never really doubt that he’s the one in control of the situation. I never tire of watching James Mason, and there’s real pleasure to be found here in seeing him toss out casual insults to the Nazis in a marvellously supercilious tone. Danielle Darrieux is an actress I haven’t seen much of, but her fallen Polish aristocrat is a fine mix of allure, earthy sensuality and duplicity. Her scenes with Mason carry a sense of conviction and there’s certainly some chemistry between them. Michael Rennie has a somewhat thankless role as the secret service man hunting Cicero but he does well enough in the circumstances. Joseph L Mankiewicz wasn’t the most prolific director but I’ve always enjoyed his work and he handles this material very stylishly. The use of genuine Turkish exteriors helps lend some authenticity to the film but it’s the interior sequences that have the most power. The scene that leads up to the discovery of Cicero’s identity is a masterclass in the building of suspense – the way the camera follows a cleaner round an embassy corridor, while she tries to work out the source of a power failure and we know what the consequences of her actions will be, is a piece of film-making worthy of Hitchcock himself. And that neatly allows me to point out that the movie also benefits from a score by the great Bernard Herrmann.
5 Fingers is available on DVD in R2 from Optimum in the UK. Unfortunately, it’s one of their weaker efforts with a soft transfer that also suffers from being interlaced. It’s one of the usual barebones discs from this company with no extras whatsoever and no subtitle options. However, the one thing in its favour is that it’s cheap and it’s about the only option if you want to see this title – being a Fox property the chances of a R1 release are not good at present. Anyway, it’s a very classy film that won’t disappoint, and the final scene that fades out to the accompaniment of the kind of hollow, cynical laughter that recalls John Huston is almost worth the price on its own. The Optimum disc is definitely watchable despite its shortcomings and, since the movie itself is just so entertaining, I’d have no hesitation in recommending it.