Mon 5 Oct 2009
ELYESA BAZNA, with Hans Nogly – I Was Cicero. Harper & Row, hardcover, 1962. Paperback reprint: Dell, 1964.
In I Was Cicero Elyesa Bazna relates how he angled himself a job as valet to the British Ambassador in Turkey so he could spy for Germany in 1943 under the code name “Cicero” — employment that became famous in 1950 when L. C. Moyzisch, his German contact man, wrote Operation Cicero, and even more famous in ’52 when Joseph L. Mankiewicz filmed it as 5 Fingers.
But it was “Cicero” who became famous, not Bazna. So I guess Bazna, toiling in obscure poverty in Turkey, looked around at everyone getting rich off his story and decided to cash in on it if he could. I Was Cicero (co-written with Hans Nogly) never found the popularity of 5 Fingers, but it’s a generally engrossing and often insightful look inside the mind of a spy.
Bazna cherishes no illusions about himself; he admits from the start that he was a lower-class working man of minimal education, with no polish, little imagination and unprepossessing appearance, who had the ambition to take a chance when he had it, and the smarts to get out when the going got dangerous. He was also cheated outrageously by his Nazi paymasters, for whom he insists he worked in good faith.
So where Moyzich’s Operation Cicero is mostly about Moyzisch and his growing realization that his superiors in Berlin were mad — and the moral dilemma of trying to serve his country in such times — Bazna’s I Was Cicero is just about a guy doing a job that happens to be incredibly dangerous.
And though Bazna was stealing secrets instead of robbing banks, he admits, like Alvin Karpis, to getting hooked on the excitement of it, and the sheer visceral pleasure of having money. Like Karpis, he makes no excuses for his work; he just takes pride in a job well done.
Afterword: When Joseph Mankiewicz filmed 5 Fingers (1952) he pretty much cut out Moyzisch’s part, added some incidental characters and a sub-plot to move things along, plus a suspense-evoking score by Bernard Herrmann to lend the whole thing a creepy mood.
His biggest change, though, was to turn the character of working-class schlub Elyesa Bazna into the suave, classy James Mason, who played the part to sinister perfection.
Basically, Mankiewicz turned the story inside out, and no one complains because he made a good movie out of it:
5 FINGERS. 20th Century-Fox, 1952. James Mason, Danielle Darrieux, Michael Rennie, Walter Hampden. Based on the book Operation Cicero by L. C. Moyzisch. Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz