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Man in the Middle
Man in the Middle isn't a combat film but a courtroom drama criticizing Army justice during WW2. The original book is by Howard Fast, the leftist writer of Spartacus, and the cast includes Sam Wanamaker, the blacklisted American actor who went to England to appear in radical films by other blacklistees, like Edward Dmytryk's Christ in Concrete (Give Us This Day). Although the critical attack on the Army isn't carried to its logical conclusion, the film does imply that the services will not tolerate those who buck the system, no matter how wrong it may be.
Just before Guy Hamilton directed Goldfinger, the best of the James Bond films, he took on this low-key wartime courtroom drama, a B&W CinemaScope show made when almost all new production was being done in color. Excellent English production values convincingly recreate wartime India in London studios and a top cast acquits itself well in realizing a script by Willis Hall & Keith Waterhouse, the talented writers of Billy Liar, A Kind of Loving and Whistle Down the Wind.
Robert Mitchum is excellent as the a no-nonsense officer elected to float a phony defense for a murderer that command needs convicted to insure smooth cooperation from the British allies. The other Americans in this mostly-English film are Barry Sullivan, contributing a spirited performance as a General who demands that justice follow his personal orders, and ex- MGM contractee Keenan Wynn, who does his best to attract Oscar attention with the juicy role of a racist maniac. Lesser-known Yank actor Robert Nichols (This Island Earth) is fine as a legal aide worried that Mitchum is coasting through what is shaping up to be a kangaroon trial.
Not unlike Jean-Pierre Trintagnant in "Z", Mitchum goes up against a rigged system. Military politics has decreed that Wynn's psychotic murderer be sacrificed for 'the greater good,' and a number of officials go along with the lies. Mitchum has his most trouble with top Brit medico Alexander Knox, who first hides Winton's diagnosis and then makes it impossible for Mitchum to access the proper witnesses to prove that Winton is insane. Everyone, even Mitchum, is threatened with demotion should they contradict the official lies; Sam Wanamaker's honest psychiatrist finds himself reassigned to petty medical duties, to get him out of the way.
Mitchum plays it cool, refusing to roll over for the brass and equally refusing to play the rebel for those demanding justice be served. A sex subplot is introduced through France Nuyen's nurse, who repeatedly accuses Mitchum of abandoning justice. Nuyen's a Eurasian, and the film's idea of a hip pick-up line is to have Mitchum purr at her doorstep, "Is my laundry ready?" That's almost as good (or as tasteless) as Mitchum's casual remark in Fire Down Below: "What, me gay?"(Spoiler)
Man In the Middle pays off its drama rather well with some good courtroom scenes. A no-witness disaster is averted by the last-minute substitution of expert testimony from special guest star Trevor Howard, and Keenan Wynn gets in a minute of quality scene chewing when he cracks up in front of the assembled court. The only thing missing is the retaliation of the brass: Mitchum looks on calmly as Barry Sullivan's chagrined General storms out. In the Army as in Washington, Real Power never admits defeat and pays back all perceived disloyalties, even when the laws of man and decency are being broken. I haven't read Howard Fast's original novel, but I'll bet that Robert Mitchum's character gets whatever punishment his displeased superiors can mete out to him.
Fox's DVD of Man In the Middle is a pleasant surprise. Not only is the movie good, the print on display is near flawless, with a stereo track in English and mono tracks in English and Spanish. A still gallery emphasizes non-existent romantic scenes (although Mitchum and Nuyen do shack up for a night) and a trailer acts as if the course of Western Civilization hangs in the balance of this murder trial. The package's poor description of the film's plot mischaracterizes the story as uncovering 'a mysterious conspiracy that could extend to the highest levels of military power.' No, the movie is about the everyday, basic flaws in power systems that flaunt their corruption in full public view, and then call it loyalty to a higher authority.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Man in the Middle rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Trailer, still gallery
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 29, 2007
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