(director/writer: Joseph L. Mankiewicz; screenwriters: based on the novel “Operation Cicero” by L.C. Moyzisch/Michael Wilson; cinematographer: Norbert Brodine; editor: James B. Clark; music: Bernard Herrmann; cast: James Mason (Ulysses Diello-Code Name: Cicero), Danielle Darrieux (Countess Anna Staviska), Michael Rennie (George Travers), Walter Hampden (Sir Frederic), Oscar Karlweis (Moyzisch), Herbert Berghof (Colonel Von Richter), John Wengraf (Count Von Papen), Roger Plowden (Macfadden); Runtime: 108; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Otto Lang; 20th Century Fox; 1952)
“Mason’s chilling performance makes the film a special treat.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A solid spy thriller. It is based on the true incident in the memoir “Operation Cicero” by L.C. Moyzisch, while the screenplay is tightly drawn by Michael Wilson as it stretches the truth with some exaggerated romantic moments. Moyzisch was a bumbling Nazi military attaché during 1944 and took part in the espionage adventure when he was approached by the mysterious Diello and became his contact. James Mason is Diello, an Albanian-born naturalized British citizen who is a valet for the English ambassador in neutral Turkey during WW11. Diello schemes to get money by selling the Nazis top secret files he photographs while employed by Sir Frederic (Hampden) at the British embassy in Ankara.
This gorgeously shot black-and-white film was elegantly directed by Joseph Mankiewicz and features a fine musical score by Bernard Herrmann. Mankiewicz does a nice job of making the cold-hearted, apolitical, traitorous Diello, into an irresistible character, of whom we never sympathize with but maybe admire how devilishly clever he was.
Before working at the embassy, Diello was the valet of Countess Anna Staviska’s (Danielle Darrieux) husband, and he was let go by her after the death of her titled Polish hubby because she never felt comfortable with him. She’s an attractive, unprincipled French-born snob who is very much interested in money and status. But since she’s now a widow living as a refugee in impoverished conditions in Ankara, as her land and money was confiscated by the Germans, she feels prepared to take risks to get money. She asks her old acquaintance, the aristocratic German ambassador, Count Von Papen (Wengraf), if she can be used as a spy by the Germans. But she’s turned down because the ambassador doesn’t think she’s capable or trustworthy.
After Moyzisch becomes the man Diello deals with, the Germans give him the code name Cicero. The well-versed and articulate Diello is pleased with that name because it conveys nobility, eloquence, and dissatisfaction. The overconfident Diello turns over accurate info but the Germans don’t use it because they suspect he’s a British plant. Meanwhile, Diello accumulates a huge sum of money which he uses to purchase a house for the Countess, as he brings her into the deal because he has fallen in love with her and because her reputation and contacts allow him to operate freely in her house. He plans to escape with her to Rio de Janeiro with a new identity and a phony passport when he gets enough money from the Germans.
Complications arise when the Gestapo becomes involved and sends over Colonel Von Richter (Berghof) to take charge of the spy operations from Von Papen. The British react to a possible leak in their security by sending over special agent Travers (Michael Rennie) to take charge. He suspects Diello and has him watched. Diello plans one more espionage caper, where he hopes to get a huge sum of money after he hands over film which will reveal where the allied D-Day invasion will take place. But a series of double-crosses takes place, and Diello’s plans to reinvent himself as a member of the leisure class goes sour after he’s double-crossed by both the Germans and the Countess.
In Mankiewicz’s capable hands, the spy caper is made into a sophisticated and sardonic and witty comedy of manners. Mason’s chilling performance makes the film a special treat. A TV series was made out of this, as they changed things around so much that the anti-hero was converted into being a good guy.
REVIEWED ON 1/19/2003 GRADE: A-