Five Fingers was based on the true story of Eleyza Bazna, the valet to the British ambassador to Turkey. Using the code name Cicero, Bazna had sold the Germans photos of 35 top-secret documents, including plans for the D-Day Invasion. Although the Germans paid him 300,000 pounds, making him the highest-paid spy in history, infighting among the high command kept them from putting any of the secrets to use. German military attaché L. C. Moyzisch told the story in print in his book Operation Cicero, which led the British government to demand safety precautions to prevent such whole-sale dissemination of government secrets from recurring. The notoriety attracted filmmakers, with Arthur J. Rank, Alexander Korda, MGM and 20th Century-Fox all bidding for the rights. The latter won and assigned the script to Michael Wilson, with Henry Hathaway to direct. Studio head Darryl F. Zanuck urged them to turn the film into a semi-documentary focusing on its leading character's lack of allegiance to either side of the war. In that way, he hoped to get the audience rooting for Cicero, despite the fact that he was selling Allied secrets to the Germans. One change to facilitate that was the addition of a love interest, an impoverished French countess whom Cicero recruits.
Wilson's script was already generating positive buzz when Joseph L. Mankiewicz stepped in to give it a polish. Zanuck was so impressed with his work that, when Mankiewicz asked to take over direction, the studio head agreed, on condition the director waive his writing credit. Looking for a change of pace from urbane comedies such as A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and All About Eve (1950), Mankiewicz agreed. He took a crew to Turkey to shoot exteriors at most of the locations where the story had taken place. When the publicity department asked for a new title, fearing Operation Cicero would lead audiences to think the film was about the recent race riots in Cicero, Illinois, Mankiewicz came up with Five Fingers to reflect the leading character's greed.
A year earlier, Mason had signed a short-term contract with Fox to win the role of Field Marshal Rommel in The Desert Fox (1951). The contract gave him some say in other roles, but he was delighted nonetheless when his next studio assignment was the leading role in Five Fingers. Not only was he impressed with the script, but also he was eager for the chance to work with Mankiewicz. In later years, he would say that it was one of the few films he made in Hollywood that he could still watch with pleasure.
For the leading lady, Mankiewicz initially cast French actress Micheline Presle, who had distinguished herself in her native land with such films as Boule de Suif (1945) and Le Diable au Corps (1947) before winning U.S. fans with the Errol Flynn swashbuckler Adventures of Captain Fabian (1951). Unfortunately, she became pregnant and returned to her distinguished career in France. In her place, the studio cast Danielle Darrieux, who had first attracted notice as Charles Boyer's doomed mistress in Mayerling (1936). More recently, she had come to the U.S. to play Jane Powell's mother in Rich, Young and Pretty (1951) and starred in two of Max Ophul's classic French films, La Ronde (1950) and Le Plaisir (1952). Joining her in the cast were British import Michael Rennie, who had just scored a hit as the alien Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1952), stage veteran Walter Hampden, whose performance as Cyrano de Bergerac was the stuff of legend, and a host of distinguished character actors, including Herbert Berghof, Richard Loo, Nestor Paiva and Ivan Triesault.
With so much quality in front of and behind the cameras it was no surprise when Five Fingers earned critical kudos. Bosley Crowther summed up the reaction in the New York Times, writing, "this literate entertainment Joseph L. Mankiewicz has made with a cast that might well have been recruited from an embassy function in pre-war Berlin, is as dandy an espionage thriller as ever went through the polished hands of a Grahame Greene or an Alfred Hitchcock." Ironically, Herrmann would soon become a regular contributor to Hitchcock's films, helping create the type of sophisticated thrillers to which Five Fingers continues to be compared favorably. The film landed on the Times and Film Daily ten best lists and brought Mankiewicz and Wilson Oscar® nominations. Wilson's screenplay won a Golden Globe and the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Award.
The plot of Five Fingers was too good to let be, and Fox would make four more efforts to mine the story. Mason re-created his role twice for Lux Radio Theatre, each time with his wife, Pamela Kellino, taking over the female lead. The studio also recycled the story as Operation Cicero for its Hour of Stars anthology series. For that version, Ricardo Montalban took the lead, with Marlene Dietrich's daughter, Maria Riva, as the Countess. Finally, the story inspired a season-long Five Fingers series, with David Hedison as Cicero, now a double agent, and Luciana Paluzzi as his beautiful female accomplice. The real Cicero even got into the act in 1962, publishing his own version of the story, I Was Cicero.
Producer: Otto Lang
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Screenplay: Michael Wilson, Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Based on the book "Operation Cicero" by L.C. Moyzisch Cinematography: Norbert Brodine
Art Direction: George W. Davis, Lyle R. Wheeler
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Cast: James Mason (Ulysses Diello/Code Name: Cicero), Danielle Darrieux (Countess Anna Staviska), Michael Rennie (Colin Travers), Walter Hampden (Sir Frederic), Oskar Karlweis (L.C. Moyzisch), Herbert Berghof (Col. Von Richter), Lumsden Hare (Bit), Richard Loo (Japanese Ambassador), Nestor Paiva (Turkish Ambassador), John Sutton (Narrator), Ivan Triesault (Steuben).
by Frank Miller