Saturday 30 July 2022

Movie Review: 5 Fingers (1952)

A spy drama based on actual events, 5 Fingers is a gripping story of treason motivated by personal gain.

In 1944, Turkey is neutral territory during World War Two and a hub for spies and diplomats. Albanian-born Ulysses Diello (James Mason) is the British Ambassador's valet. He approaches German embassy attaché Moyzisch and offers to sell Allied secrets for £20,000 per film roll. The Germans are stunned but agree, giving Diello the codename Cicero and dispatching Colonel von Richter to become his primary contact.

Diello has access to the British embassy safe and on a weekly basis photographs top secret documents and sells them to von Richter for cash. He uses the home of near-bankrupt Polish Countess Anna Staviska (Danielle Darrieux) for cover. With Operation Overlord looming and the stakes getting higher, the British suspect a spy is operating out of Turkey and send counterintelligence agent Colin Travers (Michael Rennie) to investigate.

An adaptation of the book by Moyzisch, 5 Fingers achieves superlative engagement by respecting all the key characters. Within an efficient and thoughtful storytelling framework combining glamorous diplomatic parties, skulking in the shadows, and just-in-time thrills, writer Michael Wilson and director Joseph L. Mankiewicz demonstrate care for multiple perspectives and avoid labels of heroism, treachery, good, or evil. Instead they seek motivations, reactions, and consequences, and produce a well-rounded exposition of a startling spy incident.

The constraints of the British class system come under scrutiny. Diello believes himself better than a valet, but his Albanian origins limit opportunities for advancement. Entranced by the vision of the rich expatriate enjoying the Rio playground, he sets his sights on achieving a personal goal. James Mason gives the role a shiny gloss, revealing a confident man of quick intellect, ironically creating in Diello the closest thing to a protagonist.

But smarts alone are not enough in the spy game, and the drama is enhanced by a complicated dynamic between Diello and the Countess (a made-up character for the movie). Diello's vision includes a glamorous woman by his side, but his valet status re-emerges as an obstacle. Despite being penniless and desperate for a sponsor, the Countess still has standards and may not so readily accept affections from a member of the servant class.

Mankiewicz enriches the tension by peeling back the curtain on the German reaction to Cicero's emergence. They are cautious, suspicious, careful, but tempted. The debate resonates in Berlin, and von Richter arrives in Turkey to take charge. The tension and disagreements between Berlin officials and the German Ambassador demonstrate the film's cerebral qualities. On the other side, counterintelligence agent Travers starts his sleuthing for the British, and now Diello has to guard against professional eyes right within his home embassy.

The energy intensifies as 5 Fingers works its way to multiple delicious twists in the final act. When the risks and rewards escalate, the outcomes can be most unpredictable.

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