The Man Who Never Was

What sort of body would I need?

Based on a true story.  Famous first words.  Some people think movies are made better when they’re based on something true.  It probably has to do with heightening the emotion or tension because reality holds no bounds and the story could literally go in any direction!  That doesn’t really hold true with biopics, does it, unless you know almost nothing about the person upon which the film is based.  In any case, these people seem to forget that a studio is the one that decides whether the film is made and their decision procedure is identical to that of making a fictional film–will it make money?

Commander Montagu (Clifton Webb) is an intelligence officer tasked with military deception along with his aide, George (Robert Flemyng).  It’s 1943 and the Allies are preparing to invade Sicily. The problem is that Sicily is the obvious attack point and the Axis has reinforced the island.  George considers dropping a body with a defective parachute and fake plans on his person in Axis-held territory.  Too many holes in the plan, but Montagu likes the theory.  So they come up with an improved plan whereby a downed pilot with a private message included saying that the Allies would attack Greece and Sardinia.  That body would wash up on the shore somewhere and the Germans would take it to be a genuine find.  But how do you make the Germans believe the plans were genuine?

I love old WWII movies.  I love love old espionage movies.  The two together?!  The Man Who Never Was (1956) is great fun.  It’s like Shining Through (1992) or its sister Charlotte Gray (2001).  I’ve mentioned it before, but I love how much of a game it used to be for them.  It was a game because the Allied–known as the “good guys”–gave far better than they got.  It gives it all a veil of innocence and nostalgia.

Another great thing about these movies/stories is that most people alive today are wholly unaware of them.  So it works as half entertainment, half history lesson.  Wonderful.  A lot of what makes the movie work as a broad entertainment, however, is fictional.  But the premise and elements of the deception are all true.

The movie is pretty slow paced.  The best thing about this movie is that it takes us through the process of thinking about the problem, a device, a refined device, the approval, the execution, and covering up.  The covering up, apparently, a work of fiction.

The movie’s success is almost wholly with the plot and writing (Nigel Balchin).  As far as direction (Ronald Neame) or performances are concerned, it’s all pretty functional and unexceptional.  Still, so far as entertainment is concerned, it’s worth looking into.  WWII buffs should buy it.

About Prof. Ratigan

A semi-lawyer and amateur enthusiast.
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