Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Fox hasn't yet released the acclaimed Joe L. Mankiewicz spy thriller Five Fingers, an espionage
classic from the years when secret agents were more often than not associated with War
themes, before James Bond turned Cold War competition into a cynical playground for hot sex and
comic book spectacle.
British spy masterminds had a miserable time in WW2, sending off eager patriots to almost certain
capture and death in Nazi-held France. In the pre-007 fifties British filmmakers were looking for
themes that exalted the sacrifice and nobility of English warriors. One of the most popular was
1958's Carve Her Name With Pride a tearjerker that exaggerated only slightly the short and
unhappy career of Violette Szabo, played with conviction and spirit by Virginia McKenna. 1
The Man Who Never Was is one of the better wartime spy films. It's based on a true incident
and keeps the peripheral dramatization to a minimum. Only an oddly-miscalculated appearance by the
usually delightful Gloria Grahame upsets the balance. The fascinating story doesn't require the addition
of fancy twists to keep our interest.
Lt. Cmdr. Ewen Montagu (Clifton Webb), his aide Lt. George Acres (Robert Flemyng)
and their secretary Pam (Josephine Griffin) are charged with finding a
simple and cheap way of misleading the Nazis into thinking that Sicily will not be the Allies'
point of attack in the invasion of Southern Europe. They eventually come upon a morbid plan
that requires the use of a fresh corpse with an elaborate fake identity, that includes the writing of an
intimate love note. Pam's roomate Lucy Sherwood (Gloria Grahame) supplies the love letter and
Operation Mincemeat goes as planned, except for one hitch: The Germans dispatch Irish secret agent
Patrick O'Reilly (Stephen Boyd) to determine if the corpse's bank accounts, purchases and love letter
are genuine ... and Lucy has no idea that spy games are going on.
A deceptively simple story played straight, The Man Who Never Was shows just how a major
military spy operation was conceived in real life - dreamed up by a couple of imaginative
brains over pipe smoke and impossible orders: Redirect the Nazi high command's entire war effort
to the wrong front. Don't spend any money, use any soldiers or let anyone know what you're doing.
And make it all happen in a couple of weeks, please. The only contribution of a gallery of War
Ministry officials is to second-guess and naysay the bold plan, and it takes Winston Churchill to
approve it in person. Churchill's inflection-perfect imitation is said to be voiced by Peter Sellers!
Montagu and Acres think that procuring their mission's only 'soldier' will be easy until they
find out, as Acres laments, that "Every body has somebody" who isn't simply going to sign it over to
two Navy intelligence men to do God-knows-what with it. The movie has a delightfully creepy central
section in a shiny-tiled morgue, in which the crucial but anonymous corpse is dressed and outfitted
to impersonate ... uh, we'll skip that part.
Hip horror fans will flip when Lt. Acres enters the Morgue and looks around with a curled-lip
apprehension for the job he has to do. He's played by Robert Flemyng, the blasphemous necrophile
from Riccardo Freda's
The Horrible Dr. Hichcock.
We almost expect the light on the white tiles to suddenly glow crimson red! It has to be a funny
coincidence, one of those things that comes of seeing too many movies.
The usually overly-fussy Clifton Webb makes a fine aristocratic barrister, recently converted into
an intelligence agent. Tongue-in-cheek jokery is unnecessary as the details of the grand deception
come together ... along with important faked documents, his dead agent is supplied with fake
identity cards, theater tickets, purchase receipts and a 'hot love note' from a sweetheart. Without
being obvious about it, Nigel Balchin's script has the mission planners live the life of their
fictitious agent. They use his tickets to attend a theater performance
and share other evidence of his existence without letting on to anyone the exact nature of their
plans. Josephine Griffin, who played Gregory Peck's barely-seen idealized wife in
The Purple Plain plays the
practical Pam. She can't come
up with a convincing love letter, which is supposed to be from a girl who knows her man is on a
risky mission. Pam's roommate, however, is a romantic-minded librarian suffering from a succession
of love affairs with airmen, exactly the kind that might not return from a dangerous missions. She
supplies the perfect love note, knowing nothing of what it is for.
That's as far as I'll get into the plot, as The Man Who Never Was is one of those films that
is more fun if one can come upon it cold. In this case, it means not reading the plot synopses
found in TV guides, or even on the back of the DVD box.
Gloria Grahame had only a few more movies to go before plunging into a career decline; and even
though her American accent doesn't fit in with the uniformly English cast, the way she is photographed
is much worse. Her face looks bloated and red, with a permanent shine one associates with the fake
wax sprayed on apples in the grocery. No kidding, one wants to take a towel to her in every scene.
How this could be allowed is beyond me; four years later in
Odds Against Tomorrow Grahame was back to her trim good looks again. Since her character
is an emotional wreck, she comes off oddly against the controlled Brits around her, and she's at the
center of the most crucial scene. Luckily, little damage is done.
This is one of the first roles for the then-promising Stephen Boyd. He makes an unusual late
entrance into the film and provides the suspense for the last reels. Most true-life spy stories
don't make good narratives but his episode works things up for a fine conclusion. There's a political
dimension here that I've seen in only one other WW2 movie about England,
I See a Dark Stranger. We're
used to seeing WW1 tales in which Irish loyalties side with the Germans against the English occupiers
of their country, but The Man Who Never Was gives the idea that there is an active Irish
underground working for Hitler. Cyril Cusack shows up as another English-hating Irish agent.
As usual, starwatchers will have a field day picking out all the familiar English actors in small
roles: Laurence Naismith, Geoffrey Keen, André Morell, Michael Hordern, Miles Malleson,
Richard Wattis. It sometimes seems as though the British film industry was sewn up by fewer than
a hundred actors. The real Ewen Montagu is said to play an Air Marshall in one of the briefing
Fox's DVD of The Man Who Never Was is presented in a strikingly sharp and nicely-colored
enhanced transfer, looking far better than the studio prints that in 1973 were already faded. The
many authentic locations promote a feeling of realism and director Ronald Neame's repeated use
of dissolves to a body washing ashore on a faraway beach give the movie an eerie tone. There is a
second pan-scan transfer for viewers who prefer squareness in every aspect of their
lives, and don't mind the movie looking as though it was shot in a phone booth.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Man Who Never Was rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 1, 2005
1. Recommended Reading: Leo
and Cyanide: A Codemaker's War. Marks was an ace codemaker who later wrote the script for
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson