For all the iffy, “talking-point” entries on the Spy 100 list, there are at least as many obscure, unjustly overlooked gems like 5 Fingers (1952). A classy, twisty tale of historical intrigue — evidently based on a true story — this one is clever, smart, and thoroughly satisfying. Set in neutral Turkey during World War II, it’s the story of Ulysses Diello (the great James Mason), valet for the British Ambassador in Ankara. Diello, exhausted with his servile and thankless role in life, starts selling top-secret documents to the Germans, his plan to bankroll a change of identity and buy a new life. As an accomplice, he recruits the exiled Polish countess Anna Staviska (Danielle Darrieux), now destitute and aimless, but ambitious for a return to wealth. Diello’s risky plan sets both German and British intelligence services in frantic motion, as the Germans try to determine whether Diello is a genuine or fake traitor, and the Brits struggle to identify the source of their intelligence leak.
The plot of 5 Fingers is impressively convoluted and engaging, like a multifaceted, black-and-white Mission: Impossible episode, where the schemes and objectives of each side — and there are many sides — intersect and influence each other unpredictably. For all the chaos, there’s precision to the structure, and it all resolves quite neatly. The sharp dialogue is well performed, with Darrieux making for an unconventional love interest, low-key and sardonic. (When asked why she left Warsaw: “Bombs were falling. I felt I was in the way.”) But the film belongs to Mason, who walks the line brilliantly as the controlled and subservient valet, whose intelligence and class resentment lead him down treacherous paths in pursuit of a new life. He is both hero and villain simultaneously, both sympathetic and deplorable as the film’s complicated protagonist. His performance alone is worth the price of admission, but there’s plenty of other assets to sweeten the pot, not the least of which is a terrific score from the great Bernard Herrmann. This one is unjustly obscure, well worth tracking down.