AKA: Five Fingers
Long Title: The Story of the Highest Paid Spy in History
From the days of Jane Austen all the way up through the smash success of the Upstairs Downstairs inspired Downtown Abbey, for centuries the world has been entertained with tales of British society.
And while they’ve been the home to many talented writers, one of the most popular themes that’s been milked again and again for our amusement centers on the way that their class system nearly rivals that of the Caste system of the far East… at least, as it’s portrayed in period productions and sudsy corset-clad costume dramas on screens both big and small.
While there are always exceptions to the rules, stereotypes are sometimes so entrenched in the mindset of individuals that it clouds their judgment, even when they’re being shown something contradictory right before their very eyes.
And as chronicled in director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s riveting biographical thriller 5 Fingers, perhaps it’s this built in sense of class prejudice at play that prevented Britain from discovering the identity of the highest paid spy in history.
For as it turned out, the culprit in question was none other than an opportunistic valet (as played by James Mason) who snapped photos of confidential World War II military documents belonging to his employer (the British ambassador to Turkey) and sold them to the Nazis for a full year.
A tale that has to be seen to be believed with so many twists, turns, double-crosses and moments of unspeakable incredulity that they could only occur in an adaptation of a true story, Fingers is based on the autobiography of L.C. Moyzisch, the ambitious, social-climbing spy known as Cicero whose motive was money versus political ideology.
An overlooked classic that’s been long out of print, All About Eve helmer Mankiewicz’s stellar suspsenser gets new life on disc thanks to this superb release from Fox Cinema Archives.
Though he was ignored come Oscar time, Fingers features one of James Mason’s career-best performances roughly a decade before – for better or worse – he would go onto be forever ingrained in the mind of filmgoers as the man who fell in love with Nabokov’s underage nymphet Lolita in Stanley Kubrick’s shocking adaptation of the novel.
Despite Mason’s snub, Mankiewicz’s work received two nods for direction and screenplay alike, also garnering a richly deserved Edgar Award for Best Motion Picture Mystery Screenplay for Michael Wilson’s adaptation, which was also co-written by an uncredited Mankiewicz.
A remarkable achievement in screenwriting – the script is filled with crackling one-liners that insert some surprising bursts of humor as well as a sardonic, wistful multifaceted romantic subplot that helps illustrate the reason Mason's lead spy desires wealth.
While money itself too often serves as a motivating factor on film, once again Fingers never lets you forget the class focused society in which the characters live as we discover that Mason’s been in love from afar for years with the widow of the man he used to serve as a valet.
Longing to get on equal footing with the woman (played by Danielle Darrieux), the quick-thinking spy may be two steps ahead of everyone when it comes to making connections and gaining access to documents, but he doesn’t realize how deeply societal prejudices about old money vs. new money and class as something to be born with vs. obtained run. Needless to say, he may be far ahead on one level but that's a different one altogether that he'll never able to catch up with when it comes to his love.
And in some ways, he’s fighting a battle that’s as timeless and topical as any in a David O. Russell feature and watching this within a week of American Hustle was a fascinating experience to behold.
Featuring a pre-Psycho, pre-Vertigo pulsating Bernard Herrmann score and a thrilling denouement that made this film impossible to forget despite the fact that this was the first time I’d seen it in over twenty years since I’d first rented it on VHS as a kid, 5 Fingers is not only one of Mason’s charismatic showcases but it's also strong enough to stand behind All About Eve and Sleuth as one of the filmmaker’s most underrated, yet ingeniously crafted efforts.
Briskly paced and intriguing while exploring both sides of the character’s plight in a way that makes it clear that Fingers helped inspire John Schlesinger when he pieced together his own biographical espionage dramatic mystery The Falcon and the Snowman in 1985, six decades after it was first released, 5 Fingers remains just as entertaining, infuriating, unforgettable and topical as ever before. In other words, while the characters may question each other's backgrounds, it's never a question for a moment that this film is anything other than first class.
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