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The Man Who Never Was

The Man Who Never Was
1956 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 103 min. / Street Date June 7, 2005 / 14.98
Starring Clifton Webb, Gloria Grahame, Robert Flemyng, Josephine Griffin, Stephen Boyd, Laurence Naismith, Geoffrey Keen
Cinematography Oswald Morris
Art Direction John Hawkesworth
Film Editor Peter Taylor
Original Music Alan Rawsthorne
Written by Nigel Balchin from a book by Ewen Montagu
Produced by André Hakim
Directed by Ronald Neame

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 scenes.

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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 1, 2005


1. Recommended Reading: Leo Marks' Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker's War. Marks was an ace codemaker who later wrote the script for Peeping Tom.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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