I dreamed a man deprived of soul
Had drifted to the shore.
He waited, though I did not know
What he was waiting for.
At last, a passerby took note,
And, soon borne by a crowd,
The body seemed within my dream
To be uniquely proud.
The passive face had made its way
From sea to land to grave,
And none could tell this empty shell
Had come more lives to save.
I wouldn’t know myself, except,
I saw his soul, which wore
A knowing glance, pleased with the chance
To be worth waiting for.
MPAA rating: G
Hollywood loves to find those fascinating true-life stories, especially if they involve war, Nazis, and spies, and The Man Who Never Was proves that was the case even back in the 1950s. Based off a novel written by Ewen Montagu, who headed the World War II operation that occurred only thirteen years before the film’s release, The Man Who Never Was details the British plan to convince the Axis Powers that the Allies would invade Greece rather than Sicily, a plan that involved an anonymous dead body and fake intelligence reports.
After a half-serious suggestion from his assistant (Robert Flemyng), Navy Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu (Clifton Webb) ponders how to possibly divert German forces from Sicily, where the Allies will invade within months. He decides that the enemy could be misled by a dead body found with false documents but only if the ruse is convincing enough. It seems like a straightforward plan and one that had actually been used in the past, but the film presents this Operation Mincemeat as quite a tricky challenge, as Montagu and his team ensure that every detail is thoroughly persuasive in crafting the persona of “Major William Martin.” Nothing is taken for granted, from the signatures of real generals endorsing the fake letters to the everyday contents of the man’s pockets, which must appear to reflect Martin’s habits and even his love life. And of course, there’s the sticky task of cajoling the family of the recently deceased to release his body for an unspecified undertaking for the greater good.
In many ways, I doubt The Man Who Never Was could have been made nowadays, at least in its original form. The military strategies are never dull, but there’s no wow factor that would make this a blockbuster. It fascinates with its procedural shrewdness and attention to detail. Even when the mostly true story embellishes with a Nazi spy (Stephen Boyd, three years before playing Messala in Ben-Hur) sent to London to verify Martin’s identity, his tactics are subtle, and the climax is a rare example of the best course of action being no action at all. As Montagu says with a well-placed poem quote from Milton, “They also serve who only stand and wait.”
The only element that keeps this film from being List-Worthy in my opinion is Gloria Grahame, who plays the lover of a real soldier while doubling as William Martin’s fake fiancée. In a film where every other performance is kept earnest and believable, Grahame’s emotional histrionics feel out of place, even if they do play a role in the plot. Plus, her face seemed strangely shiny in all of her scenes, though that’s a personal quibble on my part.
As realistic spy stories go, The Man Who Never Was is an understated gem, with a well-deserved 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. While it appears several details fall short of historical accuracy, it’s a thoughtful and well-acted procedural sure to please those in search of neglected tales from World War II.
Best line: (Admiral Cross, after hearing the plan) “It’s the most outrageous, disgusting, preposterous, not to say barbaric idea I’ve ever heard, but work out full details and get back to me in the morning!” (Montagu) “Thank you, sir!”
Rank: List Runner-Up
© 2016 S.G. Liput
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