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Nazi Spies from the Archives

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Fox is digging deep into their vaults with the Cinema Archives series, reissuing titles that either haven't been widely seen in years. There are quite a few espionage and war movies in the catalog and two World War II-era titles, 5 Fingers and Margin for Error have just been released on DVD.

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5 Fingers is a fictionalized telling of the story of Albanian-born spy Elyesa Bazna, who worked as the valet to the British ambassador to Turkey. Bazna photographed top-secret documents and sold them to the German embassy, which was overseen by former German chancellor Fritz von Papen. Bazna successfully leaked the details of the D-Day invasion Operation Overlord, but the Germans failed to act on the intelligence. The movie's based on Operation Cicero, a memoir by a German diplomat who was involved in the scheme.

James Mason plays Ulysses Diello, a character patterned after Bazna. He's selling secrets for the money and plans to escape to Rio de Janeiro with the proceeds. There's some romance with the French widow of Diello's former employer (played by French film legend Danielle Darrieux) and a lot of double-crossing between the spies and diplomats and the French countess.

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5 Fingers is one of those movies that made a big splash when it came out in 1952 (Oscar nominations for director Joseph L. Mankiewicz and screenwriter Michael Wilson) but has since fallen off the radar. That's strange, because fans of World War II espionage thrillers will really love this. It's also available to rent for $2.99 via Amazon Instant Video.

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Margin for Error is a 1943 movie directed by Otto Preminger that's based on the hit 1939 play by Claire Boothe Luce. Jewish New York City cop Moe Finkelstein (played by Milton Berle) is ordered to serve as a bodyguard to the German consul (played by Preminger himself) and tries to quit the force.

After a lot of talk about freedom and America and how we have to show the Nazis that we're different, Finkelstein shows up at the embassy and discovers a hotbed of intrigue, including the misappropriation of funds by the consul, a plot to bomb the harbor and Nazi collusion by the leader of the German-American Bund organization.

There's a complicated murder and, in the end, the Nazis fail to execute their plan.

Margin for Error probably seemed incredibly dated in 1943, since it was written to convince 1939 isolationists that Hitler was an actual threat to the United States and that we couldn't afford to sit out the war in Europe. If anyone still opposed America's participation in the war in 1943, they were almost certainly keeping those opinions to themselves.

There's a tacked-on bit at the beginning and end that takes place after we had joined the war against Germany where Berle's character defends a German-born troop by telling the story of the intrigue at the consulate and the German's role in stopping the plot.

It's weird to see Milton Berle as a sort-of leading man with a minimal amount of comic mugging and the entire movie feels more like a filmed stage play than a play adapted into a movie. Anyone who doesn't realize how many Americans fiercely supported neutrality in the late 1930s (or how many were actual Nazi supporters) might be surprised by this movie, but it's mostly a curiosity for anyone who's especially interested in the history of Hollywood's depictions of World War II.

You'll have to watch this one on DVD. There are no rental options online and there's not a even a trailer on YouTube.

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