Friday 19 January 2024

Brigham Young (1940)

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Writer: Michael Wilson, from the book by L. C. Moyzisch
Stars: James Mason, Danielle Darrieux and Michael Rennie

Index: 2017 Centennials.

At what point, I wonder, do spoilers come into play when covering a film based on historical fact? Well, my mindset these days was forged by a theatrical viewing of Public Enemies, at which I was shocked at the audible shock of one audience member when Johnny Depp’s character was killed. Yes, that’s public enemy number one John Dillinger, who was shot and killed by special agents in 1934. If American audience members can be blissfully unaware of such a historic American event, are they likely to know much about, say, espionage in Turkey during World War II? Probably not, so I’ll be careful here, though I have to highlight that this film, while based on a memoir, isn’t remotely as true as the ballsy opening scene might suggest. Rather than merely plaster the usual ‘this is a true story’ onto the screen, we’re also placed inside the House of Commons, as an MP asks if the book, Operation Cicero, is factual. The reply? ‘It must be regretfully admitted that, in substance, the story to which the honourable member refers is a true one.’

In a nutshell, this story involved a man selling a substantial amount of British secrets to the Nazis for cash. In reality, his name was Elyesa Bazna, a Turkish man of Albanian descent, who worked as valet to Sir Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen, the British Ambassador to Turkey. The latter had a habit of taking secret documents home, in a dispatch box, and Bazna’s locksmithing skills allowed him to open this and photograph them. In late 1943, he contacted L. C. Moyzisch at the German Embassy in Ankara, and sold him a first batch of pictures. Given the codename of Cicero, he continued to do this for some months. Eventually the British discovered the leak and investigated, even mounting a sting operation that failed. However, the pressure was mounting and Cicero decided that it was time to quit. He stopped selling information in February 1944 and left the embassy in April. What’s wild is that the Nazis failed to act on any of this important information, not trusting it, and the British failed to catch Bazna.

In this screen adaptation, written by Michael Wilson, who had won an Oscar a year earlier for co-writing A Place in the Sun, much is kept factual but much is either changed or completely made up. The general result is to take a spy story, steeped in testosterone and greed, and craft from it an elegant tale of espionage, with a stirring Bernard Herrmann score. Generally, the Germans are real, starting with Moyzisch, who wrote Operation Cicero as a memoir of the affair. During World War II, his official position in Ankara, the capital of neutral Turkey, was a ‘commercial attaché’, though it was a cover for his real job as head of the SD, the intelligence agency of the SS and a sister organisation to the Gestapo. That doesn’t gel with this take on the character, delivered by an Austrian actor called Oskar Karlweis, who plays him as a nervous type seemingly incapable of doing what we know he did. This was only his second English language film, his strong career twenty years earlier ended by Nazi occupation. He’s great but he’s not real.

With Moyzisch oddly weak, we clearly need another Nazi to help this story remain believable. It turns out to be Franz von Papen, another real historical figure and a huge one. A favourite of Paul von Hindenburg, the German president during the later years of the Weimar Republic, he served as Chancellor of Germany in 1932 and Vice-Chancellor under Adolf Hitler from 1933 to 1934. The Night of the Long Knives, which purged Hitler’s chief political opponents left Papen alive, though he left the government and was sidelined into lesser ambassadorial appointments. At the time of this story, he served as German Ambassador to Turkey. Frankly, I adored the performance of John Wengraf, another Austrian actor forced to flee his homeland after the rise of the Nazis only to be tasked in Hollywood with playing characters he despised the most, such as Nazis. Wengraf plays Papen as the subtle and incisive brain of the German Embassy in Ankara though, in reality, he was an autocratic noble with catastrophic decision making skills.

If the Nazis are mostly fictionalised versions of real people, massaged into the new story, the British are a step further away from reality. Papen’s opposite number, the British Ambassador to Ankara, is Sir Frederic Taylor, surely much easier to pronounce than Sir Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen. In the hands of Walter Hampden, he’s a decent chap, perhaps a little trusting but far from inept. Everything about dispatch boxes is excised, thus polarising him into the good guy and his valet into the bad guy. That valet has a new name too, Ulysses Diello, and he’s brought to magnificent life by James Mason, who endows him with a suave, eloquent and ultra-confident persona. Mason is fantastic here, though Diello resembles the real Bazna in no way, shape or form. He dominates poor Moyzisch at their first meeting and continues to dominate everyone at every meeting. He’s so smooth that he almost has us buy into him being the hero he is in his own mind, until we step back and think about who he really is, a cruel, greedy sociopath.

Mason does so much here that I’m sure there are little details that I missed and will pick up on a second viewing. He has a subtle way of showing his arrogance when dealing with those he sees as inferior minds, such as his habit of not looking at people when the crux of the conversation is over, focusing instead on more important tasks like carefully putting on his gloves, re-shaping his hat or counting the money he’s raking in from the Nazis. I’ve never seen someone put on gloves so frequently in a movie! There are other moments too, like when he waits in Moyzisch’s office for him to develop the first reels of film. He looks up at the usual large portrait of the Führer but in such a way that it seems more like he’s looking down on him. Yet, when working as a valet, he demonstrates all the deference that is expected from his betters, playing the part of, as he ably describes it at one point ‘the best gentleman’s gentleman’. There are worlds of difference here between getting someone a drink and asking them to get you one.

His Achilles’ heel is Countess Anna Staviska, a pivotal character here who is placed in between the two sides as both a motive and an opportunity. This character is entirely fictional and her entire subplot is entirely fictional too, surely with the goal of including a female presence to a story that would be otherwise be notably without one. I believe that the only other female character given dialogue is an unnamed cleaning lady who has two lines in an otherwise silent but critical performance late in the film. Therefore it’s down to Danielle Darrieux to represent the entire female gender, something she does with effortless style. ‘More than anyone I’ve ever known,’ Sir Frederic tells Diello, ‘she symbolised the world in which she lived and which she thought would never end, a world of infinite beauty, luxury and indulgence.’ Diello knows this well, having served as valet to her late husband. Clearly, he’s in love both with her and what she represents. She’s a dream to him, but one which now may be accessible.

There’s a world of depth in the relationship between Diello and the Countess. They play many different roles at different points in the story: man and woman, master and servant, noble and peasant, victim and saviour, traitor and accomplice, hope and salvation. These roles change over time, even within single sentences, and the interplay is fascinating to watch, especially given the incisive dialogue and the textbook delivery of Mason and Darrieux. Even though this is complete departure from historical fact, it’s also an incredibly good way to represent what espionage and counter-espionage really are. Regardless of any emotional investment, each character uses the other and they both know that from the outset. Every word therefore becomes a move in a chess game, with all the power plays, sacrifices and endgames the analogy implies, except that the board and its pieces are visible only in the minds of those playing the game. What can you trust? What can’t you trust? Are you visualising the board correctly?

Anna is the reason why I’m reviewing 5 Fingers today, because she’s played by the elegant Danielle Darrieux, a French actress who celebrated her one hundredth birthday today, 1st May, the first of my subjects this year to reach her centennial. Her career is one of the longest on record, the distance in time between her first feature, Le bal, in 1931 at the slight age of thirteen, and, at present, her most recent, Pièce montée, in 2010, being almost eighty years! If we count a short documentary, Tournons ensemble, Mademoiselle Darrieux, then that increases to an incredible eighty-five! Who knows, maybe she’ll make another film in her second century. Most of her pictures were made in her native France, including Mauvaise graine, the directorial debut of Billy Wilder; two awesome films for Max Ophüls, La Ronde and Madame de...; and the multi-award winning modern François Ozon movie, 8 femmes. However, she did make a few pictures abroad too, from 1938’s The Rage of Paris, opposite Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., to 1956’s Alexander the Great.

She’s devastating here from her very first scene, at a reception held by a Turkish minister for the diplomatic corps. With the rest of the attendees suffering through an opera singer mangling Wagner, she sits in a side room eating and Franz von Papen pops in to compliment her. She maintains her poise, even as her acerbic dialogue betrays her current stature, far below where it used to be. Her husband, the Count, has passed away, leaving her a widow. Her estates and possessions in Poland, confiscated by the Nazis, are now occupied by Hermann Göring, whom she loathes. She only eats nowadays when she’s invited to a dinner, such as this one. Her delivery is superb. Papen asks why she left Warsaw. ‘Bombs were falling,’ she replies. ‘I felt I was in the way.’ What about her friends? ‘I have no friends and those who want to be, frankly, cannot afford it.’ As Moyzisch stares at her, after summoning Papen, she comments, ‘Herr Moyzisch, please do not look at me as if you had a source of income other than your salary.’

It isn’t merely Countess Staviska’s dialogue that is exquisite and it’s hardly surprising to discover that Michael Wilson won both a Golden Globe and an Edgar for his script. He was nominated for an Oscar too, which would have made two in a row, but he lost to Charles Schnee for The Bad and the Beautiful. He would win a second Oscar, for 1958’s The Bridge on the River Kwai, but as he and Carl Foreman, his co-writer, were blacklisted by Hollywood at the time, they didn’t actually receive their awards until 1984. Officially, the award was given to Pierre Boulle, who had written the source novel, even though he spoke no English. This ridiculous state of affairs was routine in the fifties. Dalton Trumbo won twice, for Roman Holiday and The Brave One, even though he was blacklisted; a front took one award, a pseudonym the other. Nedrick Young, also blacklisted, also won twice, for co-writing The Defiant Ones and Inherit the Wind, each time through a pseudonym. Of course, none of them could attend the ceremony.

There are so many great lines that it’s tough to pick favourites. Anna rumbles an undercover Nazi with a left-handed compliment: ‘How charmingly you Swiss click your heels. An old Swiss custom?’ She may get the most, but others aren’t left out. ‘The source of your money has never concerned you any more than the source of your electric light,’ Diello suggests to her. ‘They only become worrisome when they were shut off.’ Papen often eloquently skewers his Nazi superiors, describing them as ‘half-witted paranoid gangsters’ or ‘a government of juvenile delinquents.’ The Japanese ambassador calls him ‘the only unpredictable German I’ve ever met.’ A British agent describes Istanbul: ‘This city was created by Allah primarily for the concealment of spies.’ Many lines go to a character I haven’t mentioned yet, Colin Travers, who’s sent from London to Ankara to investigate the possibility that a German spy exists within the British Embassy. At one point he mentions that ‘Counter-espionage is the highest form of gossip.’

Perhaps my favourite is when Travers, in the recognisable combination of jovial exterior and utterly serious interior that sums up Michael Rennie, lays politely into Diello. ‘You’re the most cold-blooded thief, traitor and criminal I’ve seen in a lifetime of looking at human trash,’ he tells him. ‘What a pity,’ Diello replies. ‘I rather hoped I’d look like a gentleman.’ That’s a great line and a better response, but it also ably sums up their characters. In reality, Elyesa Bazna sold secrets for the basest of motives: money. Diello, his fictional counterpart, is far more complex and so much of what he does boils down to the fact that he loves the Countess, who is of a different class and moving between classes is nigh on impossible. He yearns to be her social equal and that bandying for position is highlighted by who can ask whom to make the drinks at any particular point in time. Diello serves gentlemen as a valet, but his ego is large enough to position himself above them, even as their status makes that unthinkable. Mason enjoys this depth.

It’s a shame that 5 Fingers isn’t well known today. Perhaps part of that is the odd title, which is never mentioned anywhere within the film. The memoir upon which it was based was more prosaically named Operation Cicero, but someone saw a reason to change it and I wonder why. The closest explanation we have is exhibited on the movie’s poster, on which each finger on the silhouette of a hand is labelled; these five fingers reveal ‘lust’, ‘greed’, ‘passion’, ‘desire’ and ‘sin’. That’s pretty loose, as explanations go, but it’ll serve, I guess. Perhaps the centennial of Danielle Darrieux, who acted for many great French directors, from Maurice Tourneur to François Ozon via Max Ophüls, Claude Chabrol and Jacques Demy (for whom she was the only actress to sing her own songs), will focus some attention back onto it. After all, she only made a few pictures outside France and this could well be the best of them. It certainly deserves much more attention than any of the others.

I’ve seen far too few of her French films, but those that I have are fantastic. I particularly enjoyed a pair of features for Ophüls: La Ronde, with Anton Walbrook and an opening shot which is a legendary feat of ambitious choreography, and The Earrings of Madame de..., with Charles Boyer. She also appeared in a third, in one of the three stories on the theme of pleasure in, well, Le plaisir. Even though I’m hardly a fan of musicals, I thoroughly enjoyed Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, so should check out another of his most famous films, The Young Girls of Rochefort, with Darrieux in support of Catherine Deneuve and George Chakiris. Others I feel I should track down include a British film, The Greengage Summer, a mystery surrounding the French Resistance entitled Marie-Octobre and the film that launched her stardom, a period piece called Mayerling, again opposite Charles Boyer. More recently, one film that’s racked up awards is 8 Women by François Ozon. French film is a rabbit hole and Darrieux can be found everywhere in it.

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