Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5
Alternate Title: Five Fingers
USA,. . 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