Well, this was kind of a mind-blower.
One of our favourite films is 5 Fingers (1952), starring James Mason. It’s a spy thriller loosely based on a true story, as recounted by L.C. Moyzisch in his 1950 memoirs Der Fall Cicero (Operation Cicero). Moyzisch worked as a diplomat in the German embassy in Ankara, Turkey, during WWII.
In the film, Mason is the valet to the British ambassador in Ankara. Mason is, of course, an urbane, polished man with a secret: He photographs his boss’s Top Secret war documents and sells the film to the Germans.
His goal is to raise £200,000 (approx. £7M today) so he can go to Rio de Janeiro and live like a King in a villa overlooking the harbour. He makes a nice profit; each roll of illicit film sells for £15,000 a pop.
Officials at the British Embassy know documents are being leaked – Who’s the mole? – and they call in a security specialist (Michael Rennie). Rennie wonders about Mason, but isn’t convinced he has the fortitude to be a traitor.
Added to this, Mason becomes involved with a Polish Countess (Danielle Darrieux) in a Complicated relationship. Mason was valet to her late husband, so now things are Awkward. They have to make rules about who’s the Boss of What, so it’s not your typical affaire de coeur.
This is a tense, tense film, although it wouldn’t seem that way on paper. Frankly, there isn’t much chasing or shooting. Instead, there are a lot of discussions about money and security leaks.
So, when we recently re-watched 5 Fingers, it was startlingly obvious what made it so suspenseful, and we felt foolish for not having seen it before.
It’s the music. The music makes this movie what it is.
Now, we don’t mean to take anything away from the skilled directing or the fabulous cast of 5 Fingers. You can’t improve upon either of those.
But this film depends on its music. For example, during the opening credits, Bernard Herrmann’s score immediately tells you this is a thriller set in the Middle East.
Herrmann’s score then focuses on two main issues. First, it tells us what is Significant. Even if we don’t yet understand why something is important, the music tells us to make a mental note.
Secondly, the score sets the tempo of the film. It paces the tension, infusing us with a greater sense of urgency than visuals alone provide.
And yet. When a climactic twist occurs, Herrmann refrains from using music until the character is caught in a No Win Situation, then the score jump starts a desperate run for survival.
When you think about it, it’s almost as though this movie were created for Herrmann’s score.
Herrmann began his career in radio in 1934 at CBS, and he eventually became chief conductor for the CBS Symphony Orchestra. He worked with Orson Welles during this time, including Welles’s infamous The War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938.
His first film score was also in association with Welles, Citizen Kane (1941), for which he received an Oscar nomination.
Herrmann is best known for his collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock. He scored seven Hitchcock films, starting with The Trouble with Harry (1955), and ending with Marnie (1964). It was he who created the piercing music for the shower scene in Psycho.
His final film score was for Taxi Driver (1976). Sources say Herrmann finished work on the film on December 23, 1975, then viewed a rough cut of his next project. He returned to his hotel room that evening, and died from a heart attack in his sleep.
He won an Oscar,for The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), and was nominated for four more times, including his final film, Taxi Driver.
If you want to experience Bernard Herrmann’s work in an exceptional thriller, give 5 Fingers a go. It’ll be worth your time.
This post is part of The Bernard Herrmann Blogathon, hosted by The Classic Movie Muse.
5 Fingers: starring James Mason, Danielle Darrieux, Michael Rennie. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Written by Michael Wilson. Twentieth Century-Fox, 1952, B&W, 108 mins.