Saturday, June 12, 2010

1952, Year in Review: 5 Fingers

5 Fingers
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Starring: James Mason, Danielle Darrieux, Michael Rennie, Walter Hampden
Grade: B+

I've always thought of James Mason as the Bond that never was, since he ably possesses all of the characteristics attributed to 007 (suave sophistication, dynamism, fiendish charm, an air of invincibility). Had the franchise began a decade earlier it's very possible that he may have shaken and stirred a few continental bikini babes, but as it stands his foray into the world of espionage appears to begin and end with Joseph L. Mankiewicz's less-gratuitous "5 Fingers".

The opening credits of "5 Fingers" have the typical allusory grandeur of classic movies, but as they rest there is a momentary pause before the film for a courtroom prologue proclaiming that the events we are about to see are Adapted From a Biographical Novel. It's a self-important feature that barely litters "5 Fingers" but nonetheless detracts from the cautionary fable-esqueness that courses through the picture. The early exchanges James Mason's Ulysses has with officials and the Countess Staviska (Darrieux) seeking to network, but stuffy, drab, and muted. Mankiewicz's film feels hung-up on historical detail and convention in a way that, say, Viva Zapata! refreshingly wasn't. Still, "5 Fingers" achieves more impact as a melodrama because of a more hard-line approach, and the production feels altogether Ophülsian for more than the presence of the charming Darrieux.

Nicknamed "Cicero" for his ability to elude, Ulysses is working for the British government during World War II, but secretly copying important documents and selling them to German fascists. Mason's self-assurance is perfectly suited to Ulysses' flawed sense of status and amoral approach to war and profession. The lack of moral conscience in the film doesn't mean to say that there isn't discussion of espionage as a viable career path, and if anything Mason makes Ulysses such a pillar of officiality that you somehow take him more seriously than a Tom Ripley, even though they essentially stand for the same thing. Mankiewicz refrains from aligning us with the British government, and so the gall of Ulysses is generally something to be observed and admired, his introspective plotting immersively played by Mason. "5 Fingers" is infinitely more successful when it becomes less intent on detail and more reverent of Mason's canny abilities, developing into a fascinating character study and a fable about what can happen to personalities that show such flagrant disregard for loyalty. The film is reliant and indulgent of Ulysses as a rogue and addresses the uncertainty of the period, the desire for control in whatever form.

One can assume that the title "5 Fingers" refers to an outstretched palm, an oath of allegiance to a monarch, republic etc. that is so clearly contravened by the film's cavalier anti-hero. Like Bogart's Rick in Casablanca, Cicero has no real allegiance or concern for the two sides of war that are bombing, shooting, slaying each other mere miles away. The elitist nature of both Rick and Ulysses in pursuing their own affairs - financial or otherwise - ambivalent, exploitative of war and the people embroiled in it, reads as some kind of denouncement of Nationalism as a forgotten entity. "Casablanca" may well be ahead of its time in that regard, but "5 Fingers" certainly emerged in an American period of crisis towards the fading sense of Nationalism, and in the midst of a desperate movement to retrieve it.

Ulysses' relationship with the Countess forms the only real context in which we can view him as anything other than selfish and single-minded. The nature of their tryst feels more business-orientated than romantic, but their shared capitalist mentality allows them to connect in a way they otherwise wouldn't have. It's a relationship that works because of the pair's clinical approach, and one that reveals Ulysses' complex for measuring his own success against others'. One almost feels he has come from an impoverished background and worked his way up to diplomacy (a la Joe Lampton in Room at the Top) as his thirst for competitiveness and a sense of victory seem to precede his own self-preservation. The film's final scene affords Mason the opportunity to demonstrate this, which he does with such wildly committed affectation.

"5 Fingers" appears to be both lamenting and critiquing the increasing hybridity of nationalism, an undoubted inflection of the American moment. Despite a laboured start it's difficult to imagine the film without either the deft touch of Mankiewicz or the delicious character work of Mason. Its sensibilities creep up on you like a concerto; watching someone lie, steal, and cheat has never been quite this much of a resonant, finally fleeting disgrace.

Academy Awards


Best Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Best Writing, Screenplay: Michael Wilson

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