5 Fingers - Five Fingers - Joseph Mankiewicz - James Mason - Ulysses Diello

5 Fingers
1952, directed by Joseph Mankiewicz

Like Casablanca, 5 Fingers is set in a nominally neutral Muslim country during World War II just beyond the edges of Europe where Axis and Allied characters cross paths and, through their various intrigues and personal dramas, shape their respective countries’ war efforts far from the lines of battle. In both movies the male protagonist rekindles a romance with a woman he loved back in Europe.

Beyond this basic outline, however, 5 Fingers is nearly opposite to Casablanca. The 1942 film was shot on Hollywood studio sets, whereas the 1952 film used real Ankara and Istanbul exteriors. Wartime enemies mingled in Rick’s café, but in Mankiewicz’s film the opposing sides are mostly segregated. In the opening scene the Germans and Japanese leave the Turkish diplomatic reception halfway through while the British march in through a separate door. Unlike the “Marseillaise” playing over “Die Wacht am Rhein”, the British pomp never overlaps the Ride of the Valkyries.

5 Fingers - Five Fingers - Joseph Mankiewicz - Oskar Kaelweis - L.C. Moyzisch - magnifying glass - film

Casablanca was written in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor as the United States was just entering the war, and through Rick Blaine it looks ahead to the country’s active participation in the struggle. 5 Fingers, on the other hand, looks back at the war seven years after it’s over, bringing to light a true story that nearly could have changed the war’s outcome. Just as Casablanca‘s timeless humanity transcends its allegory about an isolationist country joining the fight, so too do the chief lessons of 5 Fingers reach beyond the scope of World War II.

Although Casablanca looks forward at the war while 5 Fingers looks back, the protagonists in each film face life in the opposite direction. The memory of Paris will sustain Rick and Ilsa for the rest of their lives, giving them courage to sacrifice their love for a greater cause. Ulysses Diello too is possessed by the past… as a young sailor he had looked up at a Rio de Janeiro mountainside to see a wealthy man in a white dinner jacket looking down at him from a balcony. “I swore then,” as he tells Countess Staviska, “that someday I’d be that man.” For Diello however, Rio de Janeiro is not a cherished memory but a mirage to run after. Just as Rick is redeemed by looking back, Diello is condemned because he constantly looks forward.

5 Fingers - Five Fingers - Joseph Mankiewicz - James Mason - Ulysses Diello - Rio de Janeiro - white dinner jacket - terrace - ending - Brazil

Not until the final scene is the full impact of Diello’s story revealed. Finally he has indeed become that man in a villa in Rio wearing a white dinner jacket. It turns out that this long-remembered vision has been the guiding force in Diello’s life all along. The Germans lost the biggest war in history because they could not figure out the motive driving this one insignificant man, a mere valet at a far-flung British embassy, to turn over his country’s greatest secrets. They could not fathom that a man without an obvious mercenary or ideological motive could be anything other than an enemy plant playing a grand trick on them. Diello handed the Nazis highly consequential secrets one after another, from the bombing of the Ploiești oil fields to the invasion of Normandy, and they failed to act on this intelligence because they failed to comprehend a man of no particular complexity.

The insight in Diello’s character is no less profound for being so instantly recognizable. People are not always driven by the usual enticements: money, sex, power, status, fame, possessions, nor even by the nobler aspirations: accomplishment, knowledge, charity, or religious salvation. This movie says that human motivation is more subtle – that people are surprisingly often motivated by an image, especially an image of the self – what they might become, like Diello’s man in the white dinner jacket. Diello is totally possessed by a specific image of dignity that he perceived at one glance. He constantly speaks of becoming a “gentleman”, but for him that word has a particularly precise meaning.

5 Fingers - Five Fingers - Joseph Mankiewicz - James Mason - Ulysses Diello - spying - photographing - secret documents

Diello’s character is summed up in three words. Flattered upon learning that his codename is “Cicero”, he describes the historical Cicero as “a man of nobility, eloquence… and dissatisfaction.” This is clearly how he sees himself too. The first two qualities describe what he had imagined in that wealthy man in Rio, and he has molded himself into a man of nobility and eloquence to fit someday on that beautiful terrace on the mountainside. The third quality, dissatisfaction, describes his present state, not having yet become that idealized man.

Like so many ambitious figures, Diello views dissatisfaction as a virtue because it impels him toward his goal, but this quality also proves a curse. Having achieved his goal in Rio he still cannot enjoy his success. The demon of dissatisfaction won’t go away. He is tormented because Anna Staviska got the better of him, yet he still longs for her – we catch “Adieu, mon coeur” on his phonograph, a memory of her apartment in Ankara. His dissatisfaction is so consuming that when he learns of Anna’s misfortune he rejoices, even though it means the end of his long-cherished dream.

The Nazis are not the only characters to misjudge someone’s motives to their great disadvantage. Diello is too sure of his own reading of Countess Staviska; he confidently tells her of her own attraction to him, saying that no one knows a man’s wife like his valet. He feels so secure that when he hears of her betrayal he is doubly crushed – not only has he lost his fortune and his prospective wife, he has also been made a fool of.

5 Fingers - Five Fingers - Joseph Mankiewicz - Danielle Darrieux - Countess Staviska

The Countess is not drawn as fully as Diello. We never learn her secret ideal, the private image that motivates her. As far as we can see she is a shallow gold-digger, but if we’ve understood 5 Fingers we should know that that’s probably not her whole story. The same lesson extends to movies themselves, whose hidden motives people overlook at their own peril. Like Diello’s image of the elegant man in white, a film’s guiding motive may be unexpected, specific, and unique – but just as Diello confesses his ambition to the countess, telling her all about his vision in Rio, a good film will also reveal its secrets to those who care to listen.

The insight of 5 Fingers is transparent to anyone who reflects on Diello’s character, but there is a hidden symmetry in the film’s characterizations and settings. The opening diplomatic reception is a microcosm of the war, with the Axis dominating the first half, the Allies the second, and the unaligned Turkish hosts and Countess Staviska present throughout. Building on this symmetry, each side has its own low-level functionary (Diello and Moyzisch), its aged ambassador (Taylor and Von Papen), and its emissary sent from the capital to take charge (Travers and Von Richter). The film stresses the parallel journeys of the latter two, arriving in Istanbul at the same time and being picked up in Ankara. Diello and Moyzisch are paired in a more subtle fashion – right after the British ambassador praises Diello’s memory, Moyzisch forgets £20,000 in Von Papen’s office. Countess Staviska, the only guest allowed to stay for both halves of the opening party, is more ambiguous than neutral; she assists in Diello’s scheme, but before absconding with the rewards she mails opposite reports to the British and German ambassadors (the British ambassador gets the truth).

The settings are structured too. The British side revolves around the ambassador’s office with its large safe and its portrait of Churchill. On the German side is Moyzisch’s office, its safe flanked by a portrait and a bust of Hitler. There’s also a safe in Countess Staviska’s rented house, concealed behind a portrait of an anonymous historical nobleman. The locations, reflecting the title 5 Fingers, are divided among five major cities, each with its own establishing panorama: London, Ankara, Berlin, Istanbul, and Rio de Janeiro.

5 Fingers - Five Fingers - Joseph Mankiewicz - James Mason - Ulysses Diello - Istanbul

At the heart of 5 Fingers is the story of Diello and the corrupting power of a single defining vision from his youth. Finding his dream fulfilled in Rio, even for a moment, is satisfying because it reveals a recognizable truth in a surprising way. People misjudge others because they fail to imagine the simple yet personal factors that drive them. But it is almost equally satisfying to look at 5 Fingers as the story of how a Turkish cleaning woman saved the world. If that humble servant hadn’t done her job on an ordinary day and tried to vacuum the hallway, the alarm would not have gone off, Travers would not have chased Diello to Istanbul, and the Gestapo agents would not have spied Diello with Travers, possibly convincing Von Richter that Diello was a British agent and persuading him to toss the greatest secret in the history of warfare out the window. The point is ambiguous – the countess’s letter should have been sufficient to persuade Von Richter, who was always suspicious of Diello; but he also distrusted the countess, and the reports of Diello walking away with the British may have solidified Von Richter’s fateful decision. In any case, there is a fascinating symmetry between these two servants, Diello and the Turkish maid, each tilting the balance of history in a different direction.


Casablanca – WWII in neutral Muslim country with Axis and Allied characters; rekindled relationship

Hiroshima mon amour – Inversion of Casablanca, viewing the war from years later

Marnie – Character’s identity motivated by a particular remembered image

Burning – Character motivated by an image of what he’d like to be