Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Tonight's Movie: Five Fingers (1952)

FIVE FINGERS is a highly absorbing WWII thriller about a spy (James Mason) selling British secrets to the Germans.

Ulysses Diello (Mason) serves as valet to the British ambassador (Walter Hampden) to Turkey during World War II. Diello also uses his unquestioned access to the embassy to photograph top secret war documents, which he sells to the Germans. Diello feels no allegiance to any particular country, but wants to make money -- lots of it -- and then retire to the good life in Rio. Diello hopes to enjoy Rio with Anna (Danielle Darrieux), an impoverished Polish countess whose husband once employed Diello.

The British soon realize that secrets are leaking from their embassy in Turkey and send Colin Travers (Michael Rennie) to investigate. The wily Diello manages to stay two steps ahead of both Travers and his German clients, but there are a couple of twists which even the careful Diello fails to anticipate.

The film is in the best tradition of Alfred Hitchcock, combining suspense and humor; Mason, of course, would go on to be one of Hitchcock's best villains in NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959). The film is based on a true story and is rather unusual in that it simply lays out, almost in documentary fashion, the deeds of a very bad man. Mason, as the focus of the film, becomes an antihero who is strangely sympathetic to the audience -- never more so than when we see he just can't seem to stop acting as a valet, no matter the circumstances.

Mason, of course, is a fascinating actor, and the plot is constructed so that the audience can't help but root for him to succeed...although when he starts shopping around information on Operation Overlord, the viewer is jolted back to reality and thinks twice. The film has a literate, intelligent quality which is part of what makes it an engrossing espionage tale, rather than potentially distasteful, as Diello sells documents that will affect thousands of lives without a second thought. A fairly sympathetic portrayal of someone betraying the Allies for cash must have been even more surprising in 1952 than it is today. I won't give away the ending, other than to say I thought it perfectly suited both the plot and the tone of the film.

The French actress Darrieux had previously shown her ability to charm in U.S. films such as THE RAGE OF PARIS (1938) and RICH, YOUNG AND PRETTY (1951). Here she plays a more complex role, as a woman whose only allegiance is to herself. Although she is physically beautiful, her amoral character is ultimately even less attractive than Mason's. They are certainly a unique pair of leads for a film of the era.

Michael Rennie made several notable films for Fox in the early '50s, including THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951), I'LL NEVER FORGET YOU (1951), and DANGEROUS CROSSING (1953). Here he's given the good guy role, who in some respects is initially seen by the audience as the spoiler for Mason's plans. It takes a while to warm up to the idea that he's the hero of the piece.

Walter Hampden, who plays the British ambassador, went on to a wonderful comedic role as the father of Humphrey Bogart and William Holden in SABRINA in 1954. Nestor Paiva and Michael Pate have small parts. John Sutton provides the narration.

FIVE FINGERS was directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who also did uncredited work on the script, written by Michael Wilson. It's a black and white film which runs 108 minutes.

The musical score by Bernard Herrmann is exactly right for this type of suspense film; it's particularly good during the climactic chase sequence. Herrmann would go on to work with Alfred Hitchcock, including -- like Mason -- on NORTH BY NORTHWEST.

Cinematographer Norbert Brodine previously worked on many film noir classics, including THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET, SOMEWHERE IN THE NIGHT, 13 RUE MADELEINE, BOOMERANG!, and KISS OF DEATH.

FIVE FINGERS has been released in the United States on video.

It's available on Region 2 DVD in the James Mason Screen Icons Collection. The print is excellent. The other films in the set are THE BELLS GO DOWN, THE MAN BETWEEN, ODD MAN OUT, and THE MAN IN GREY, where he plays a villain who turns anti-hero in his final scenes.

Given how relatively affordable they have become, an all-region DVD player is a great idea for a classic film fan's Christmas wish list.

FIVE FINGERS can also be seen on cable on Turner Classic Movies.

May 2019 Update: I had the wonderful opportunity to revisit this film on a big screen at the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival.


Post a Comment

<< Home

Newer›  ‹Older