Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Tonight's Movie: The Man Who Never Was (1956)

THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS (1956) is an excellent fact-based World War II spy thriller.

I've been meaning to catch this one for some time, as it's one of my mother's favorite movies, yet somehow I'd never seen it myself. It did not disappoint.

THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS tells the story of Operation Mincemeat, an elaborate ruse designed by the British to draw the Nazis away from Sicily before the Allied invasion, in the hope of lessening casualties. Lt. Cmdr. Ewen Montagu (Clifton Webb) and Lt. George Acres (Robert Flemyng) concoct a plan to obtain a dead body and give it a fictional persona, Captain (Acting Major) William Martin.

They plant letters in a briefcase carried by Martin indicating that the Allies' move toward Sicily is a feint and that the real action will be an invasion of Greece and Sardinia. A submarine then releases the body near the coast of Spain, making it appear it was in a plane which was shot down; when the body washes ashore the Spanish authorities return Martin's effects to the British -- but forensic study determines that the letters were opened before they were returned, which surely means copies are in the hands of the Nazis.

The Nazis indeed have the copies but are suspicious about whether Martin and the letters are legitimate. A Nazi spy (Stephen Boyd) posing as an Irishman is sent to London to make inquiries and visit places suggested by various documents and bills on the body.

A bank manager (John Welsh) handles the spy's phone call with aplomb, having his secretary take notes and even having it traced. There might be a glitch, however, as Lucy (Gloria Grahame), the roommate of Montagu's secretary (Josephine Griffin), had helped compose a love letter planted on the corpse; Lucy has no idea what's going on and might unknowingly give the game away when the spy pays her a visit.

This was a simply top-notch "spy procedural." It had some of the elements I liked in the opening scenes of the recently viewed OPERATION CROSSBOW (1965), with a plan being devised and executed, but while I thought OPERATION CROSSBOW fell apart in its violent second half, THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS sustains an excellent story from start to finish.

There are lovely touches throughout, from the poem quoted at the opening and closing of the film to the moment where the submarine officers, though in dangerous waters, pause long enough to pray over the body before sending it into the sea. The conclusion, as Montague suddenly realizes with clarity what his team must do -- or not do -- to avoid tipping off the spy that they're on to him is brilliant.

Webb is superb as Montagu; he's humorous enough to dub the plan Operation Mincemeat, but he also shows great sensitivity dealing with the father (Moultrie Kelsall) of the young man who has died of pneumonia and is thus perfect to simulate a drowning victim. (This part deviates from what I've read about the real operation, but the majority of the film seems accurate.) Webb is onscreen for a majority of the film and, along with the fascinating story, is a big part of the reason the movie is so engaging.

Grahame is quite good as the beleaguered Lucy, who's in love with a pilot (William Russell) engaged in risky operations; the one odd thing is that Grahame was photographed throughout much of the film with a brightly shining face. It's as though makeup forgot to apply powder in scene after scene.

The cast also includes Andre Morell, Cyril Cusack, Michael Hordern, and Laurence Naismith. Peter Williams plays Admiral Mountbatten, while Peter Sellers, of all people, is said to have been the voice of Winston Churchill.

Nigel Balchin's screenplay was based on the nonfiction book by Montagu. The movie was directed by Ronald Neame and filmed by Oswald Morris.

THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS is available on DVD, with a widescreen version of the film on one side of the disc and a pan-and-scan version on the reverse.

This film should appeal to a wide cross-section of classic film fans, including those who enjoy WWII films, spy thrillers, "true life" stories, or simply a very good, well-told tale. Recommended.


Blogger Irene said...

I was excited to see your review today because coincidentally this DVD is now waiting for me at the library. I am really looking forward to seeing it. I asked my husband if he had ever read the book and he knew all about this operation and yes has read the book. My daughter and son-in-law are very much into all things WWII and so perhaps will also be interested. I'll let you know what I think about the DVD :)

10:24 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Oh, that's great, Irene! I hope you get the whole family to watch. :) I'll be interested to hear your thoughts!

Today I purchased the book OPERATION MINCEMEAT by Ben Macintyre for my Kindle. I'm told it contains some facts which were still classified at the time of the original book and movie.

Best wishes,

9:28 PM  
Blogger Seth said...

It's been a while since I've seen it, but I too really enjoyed THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS so much that I recently picked up a used copy. Thanks for reminding me that I need to watch it again soon.

6:24 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Seth! How great you have a copy on hand so that you can revisit the movie soon. I hope you enjoy your "re-watch" as much as I enjoyed seeing it for the first time.

Best wishes,

2:08 PM  
Blogger Irene said...

I have now seen this movie and really enjoyed it! The beginning was a little slow for me with all the prep that had to go into this operation, but interesting none the less. What I really enjoyed was when the whole operation was finally put into action. I was especially moved by the scene where Lucy breaks down over her loss. Sorry for her but the timing of that notification could not have been more perfect. I was also moved by the care everyone had over the body such as acquiring it, the burial at sea and the burial on land. He was so smart to think of the little details such as realizing the envelope had probably been opened and then seeking out that answer and also stopping the arrest of the agent which would have blown the whole operation. I was also moved by the ending when Montagu visits the grave. My daughter and son-in-law are planning to watch it later this week. They were already aware of this operation (of course) and are very interested in seeing it. My husband on the other hand not so much as he read the book at one time and is more of a read the book kind of person than watch the movie. So thank you for another good recommendation Laura!

3:52 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Irene! I enjoyed your comments very much. It's funny but I think I enjoyed the first half of the film with the "prep" more -- but then I love methodical "procedural" kind of movies anyway. I enjoy suspense less! LOL. But now that I've seen it and know what happens I think I will enjoy the second half just as much when I watch it again.

I agree, I appreciated the sensitivity which also made an interesting contrast to the war. The entire thing was very interesting. I'm hoping to read that book I mentioned soon.

So glad you enjoyed this!

Best wishes,

4:16 PM  

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