5 Fingers (1952)

JOSEPH L. MANKIEWICZ

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5

Alternate Title: Five Fingers

USA, 1952. . Screenplay by , based on the book by . Cinematography by . Produced by . Music by . Production Design by , . Costume Design by . Film Editing by .

Time has worn down the edges of this spare and unfettered spy thriller, made before the glamorous sex and violence of James Bond and intellectual misery of John Le Carre would glorify the genre on a much bigger level in the sixties. At the time, it was more common for spy movies to be jingoistic red-baiting, plastic in their presentation of good and bad guys and focused solely on extolling the virtues of single-minded patriotism, and it’s much to director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s credit that his main character Ulysses Diello (a fictional name for the real-life spy Elyesa Bazna, upon whom he is based) remains a compelling subject whom we are encouraged to view coolly and without moral outrage, and who has no political idealism beyond a desire for cold hard cash.

Diello (played by ) is serving as valet to the British Ambassador at the embassy in Ankara, and one day approaches a low-level diplomat in the German embassy and offers to give him copies of top-secret documents for a very high price. The Germans agree to Diello’s terms, for many months paying for copies of important missives having to do with Allied war plans, but commanders higher up the Nazi food chain suspect Diello of being a double agent and refuse to act on the information they are given even after it is proven true.

Diello’s plan is to amass enough wealth to quit his current life and move to South America and start afresh, finding a perfect companion in a penniless French-born Polish countess () who accepts a partnership with him because it means getting herself back into the ritzy lifestyle to which she had become so accustomed. Things go smoothly for them both until one surprise move throws a wrench in the operation and paints Diello into a corner, at which point his moves go from carefully planned to increasingly desperate; his luck begins to evaporate as he seeks out the solution to his problems in Istanbul with British and German operatives following him.

Mankiewicz is not credited for the screenplay on this film, an oddity for him, though he reportedly did a great deal of uncredited rewriting and only made the film because Zanuck wanted to keep him busy for the last few months of his contract at Fox. The director later stated a great deal was reworked and re-edited without his approval and it’s not surprising to hear, there are markers of his style on a great deal of it (like the fact that, as was often the case with the filmmaker who secretly dreamed of being a Broadway playwright, most of the action plays out through intelligent expository dialogue) but there’s a lack of warmth to the way the plotting unfolds that doesn’t feel like the indulgent storyteller of All About Eve and No Way Out.

There’s a lot to be admired about the way this film refuses to play into an audience’s emotional need for constant nick-of-time cliffhangers, but the passionless performances by Mason and Darrieux in such coldly written roles make for something that does not grab you until the last fifteen minutes. The humorous twist in the final scene, however, is worth the wait.

Academy Award Nominations: Best Director (Joseph L. Mankiewicz); Best Screenplay

Golden Globe Award: Best Screenplay

One thought on “5 Fingers (1952)

  1. If you enjoyed this excellent and informative article you are going to love this non-promotional anecdote about real spies and authors from the espionage genre whether you’re a le Carré connoisseur, a Deighton disciple, a Fleming fanatic, a Herron hireling or a Macintyre marauder. If you don’t love all such things you might learn something so read on! It’s a must read for espionage cognoscenti.

    As Kim Philby (codename Stanley) and KGB Colonel Oleg Gordievsky (codename Sunbeam) would have told you in their heyday, there is one category of secret agent that is often overlooked … namely those who don’t know they have been recruited. For more on that topic we suggest you read Beyond Enkription (explained below) and a recent article on that topic by the ex-spook Bill Fairclough. The article can be found at TheBurlingtonFiles website in the News Section. The article (dated July 21, 2021) is about “Russian Interference”; it’s been read well over 20,000 times.

    Now talking of Gordievsky, John le Carré described Ben Macintyre’s fact based novel, The Spy and The Traitor, as “the best true spy story I have ever read”. It was of course about Kim Philby’s Russian counterpart, a KGB Colonel named Oleg Gordievsky, codename Sunbeam. In 1974 Gordievsky became a double agent working for MI6 in Copenhagen which was when Bill Fairclough aka Edward Burlington unwittingly launched his career as a secret agent for MI6. Fairclough and le Carré knew of each other: le Carré had even rejected Fairclough’s suggestion in 2014 that they collaborate on a book. As le Carré said at the time, “Why should I? I’ve got by so far without collaboration so why bother now?” A realistic response from a famous expert in fiction in his eighties!

    Philby and Gordievsky never met Fairclough, but they did know Fairclough’s handler, Colonel Alan McKenzie aka Colonel Alan Pemberton CVO MBE. It is little wonder therefore that in Beyond Enkription, the first fact based novel in The Burlington Files espionage series, genuine double agents, disinformation and deception weave wondrously within the relentless twists and turns of evolving events. Beyond Enkription is set in 1974 in London, Nassau and Port au Prince. Edward Burlington, a far from boring accountant, unwittingly started working for Alan McKenzie in MI6 and later worked eyes wide open for the CIA.

    What happens is so exhilarating and bone chilling it makes one wonder why bother reading espionage fiction when facts are so much more breathtaking. The fact based novel begs the question, were his covert activities in Haiti a prelude to the abortion of a CIA sponsored Haitian equivalent to the Cuban Bay of Pigs? Why was his father Dr Richard Fairclough, ex MI1, involved? Richard was of course a confidant of British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who became chief adviser to JFK during the Cuban missile crisis.

    Len Deighton and Mick Herron could be forgiven for thinking they co-wrote the raw noir anti-Bond narrative, Beyond Enkription. Atmospherically it’s reminiscent of Ted Lewis’ Get Carter of Michael Caine fame. If anyone ever makes a film based on Beyond Enkription they’ll only have themselves to blame if it doesn’t go down in history as a classic espionage thriller.

    By the way, the maverick Bill Fairclough had quite a lot in common with Greville Wynne (famous for his part in helping to reveal Russian missile deployment in Cuba in 1962) and has also even been called “a posh Harry Palmer”. As already noted, Bill Fairclough and John le Carré (aka David Cornwell) knew of each other but only long after Cornwell’s MI6 career ended thanks to Kim Philby shopping all Cornwell’s supposedly secret agents in Europe. Coincidentally, the novelist Graham Greene used to work in MI6 reporting to Philby and Bill Fairclough actually stayed in Hôtel Oloffson during a covert op in Haiti (explained in Beyond Enkription) which was at the heart of Graham Greene’s spy novel The Comedians. Funny it’s such a small world!

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