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The Man Who Never Was

Posted by martinteller on January 21, 2013

The British want to invade Sicily.  The problem is that it’s so obvious that they need to invade Sicily that the Nazis are fully aware of it, and have guns and troops amassed there.  If they can make the Germans believe they intend to attack somewhere else, they might draw off enough enemy forces to save tens of thousands of British lives.  Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu (Clifton Webb) and his aide Lieutenant George Acres (Robert Flemyng) concoct a far-fetched but brilliant scheme: dress up a body like an English officer, plant phony orders to invade Greece on him, and let the body wash up on Spanish shores where the Nazis will find it.  The first obstacle is getting a suitable corpse to “volunteer” for the job.  The second is making it look authentic.  Towards this end, Montagu assigns his secretary Pam (Josephine Griffin) to write a fake love letter.  But Pam’s roommate Lucy (Gloria Grahame) takes over the job, knowing a little something about falling in love with a man who may be killed in the line of duty.

They had me at “Gloria Grahame.”  I reckon I’ll watch just about anything where Miss Grahame has a role, large or small (although there’s a couple of very popular ones I’ve yet to see).  Despite second billing, her role in this is pretty small and doesn’t stand as one of her finest moments.  Still, she gets one of the best scenes in the film, as her life tragically — but very conveniently — coincides with the fiction the military has created.  The real star is Webb, who carries himself admirably, and I can’t think of a sour note in his performance.  The supporting cast is fine all around as well.

I love movies about clever solutions to tricky problems.  This is probably why I have a soft spot for heist movies, and a certain breed of war movies like this and The Dam Busters.  Maybe it’s the programmer in me, but I enjoy all the moments of inspiration, the meticulous attention to detail, trying to see four steps ahead and dealing with the inevitable fly in the ointment.  This film satisfies in all those ways, and tells the story (based on true events, though I haven’t researched to see how much is fictionalized) with a fine sense of narrative flow.

It’s pretty straightforward and directorial flourishes are few, but there are some here and there.  During the most unpleasant part of the plan — prepping the corpse — I liked how we could hear air raid sirens and bombings in the background, reminding us that this disquieting task serves a higher purpose.  While there aren’t many artful touches like this, there are no severe missteps and storytelling competence and solid performances add up to one of the best I’ve seen from Ronald Neame.  Rating: Very Good (82)


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