Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees has actually found a WWII movie she likes. The secret? No combat scenes.
"It's the most outrageous, disgusting, preposterous, not to say barbaric idea."
I've become a real cynic about movies that are "based on a true story." So often these films take only the bare minimum of basic details from life and then invent an almost entirely new story to go with them, preferably one that involves explosions, car chases, and romantic entanglements. Thus, it's a real pleasure to find a film with the intelligence to stick to the truth, since the truth, in this case, is gripping enough on its own without any added furbelows.
The Man Who Never Was is based on the book of the same name, written by Lieutenant Commander Ewan Montagu about a fascinating plot that he spearheaded—one that played a significant role in the Allied victory in World War II. In 1943, England was preparing for Operation Husky, in which they would land in Sicily. Unfortunately, the Axis was well aware of this intention, so German powers were massed in Sicily, meaning that the English would suffer massive losses. Montagu wanted to find a way to divert German troops to another area and thus reduce the amount of damage the English would suffer in Sicily. His idea, which became Operation Mincemeat, was to plant fake official documents on a corpse dressed to look like an English soldier, then set the corpse adrift where it would wash up on the coast of Spain and come to the attention of a high-placed German operative. The false documents would speak of an upcoming English invasion of Greece.
The plan was seemingly small in scale but demanded scrupulous thoroughness and attention to the tiniest detail. Montagu and his colleagues knew that the slightest hint of falsity would awaken the Germans' suspicions, so Operation Mincemeat had to create plausibility in every aspect of the plan. They had to find a corpse with an appropriate cause of death; determine where and how to stage its "accident" (and how to preserve it on the journey); create false documents that would pass a thorough scrutiny; and, perhaps most important, assemble a credible identity for the nonexistent dead soldier, right down to letters from a nonexistent girlfriend.
The multitude of details of this plot—and the equally thorough way in which a German operative sets about checking up on the bona fides of the dead man—make for fascinating viewing. It's a pleasure to watch intelligence at work, and because the stakes are high every detail is invested with suspense and importance. Wisely, the film keeps the emphasis on the story; the performances, led by Clifton Webb (Laura) in an uncharacteristically low-key turn as Montagu, are straightforward, never threatening to steal focus from the intellectual maneuverings. Webb sheds his usual fussy demeanor to turn in a performance of quiet strength and convincing intelligence, and Robert Flemyng is solid as his right-hand man, Lt. Cmdr. George Acres. As Girl Friday to both men, Josephine Griffin is restrained but effective. The only performances that draw attention to themselves are those of Gloria Grahame (In a Lonely Place), whose romance with a flier inspires the letter planted in the dead man's pocket, and Stephen Boyd, as the clever German operative dispatched to England to determine whether the dead man was genuine. Grahame's performance, sadly, stands out for being poorer than most of her film work, but she is also burdened with the most floridly written material of the film. At first I thought that her presence was an attempt to sex up the material with an unnecessary romance subplot, but I soon realized that her character's story made an essential contribution to the central plot. Boyd's portrayal of the German agent, however, is chillingly effective, and it's all the more impressive a performance for being in sharp contrast to his almost simultaneous depiction of a drunken charmer in the glossy soaper The Best of Everything.
Like the acting, the film impressed me for taking such a no-nonsense approach to the material. The story is allowed to stand on its own, without unnecessary side stories about the characters' personal lives (again, with the necessary exception of Grahame's character). The necessity of invading Sicily is quietly accepted, without any philosophical perorations on the evils of war. The film even honors the desire of the dead man's family to keep his identity confidential; the camera respectfully averts its eye from the dead man's face throughout the film, and avoids any sensational shots of the corpse being prepared for its work. It's almost a documentary approach, although the use of color film and some impressive location work—not to mention the presence of A-list actors—shows that this film benefited from more money and resources than a documentary. I found this no-frills approach to the material refreshing and very effective; it's a shame that more recent (usually American) films don't recognize that solid material doesn't need to be tarted up with fictitious trappings to hold an audience's interest.
Fox has presented this absorbing film in a solid transfer. The flipper disc offers the film in both its original aspect ratio of 2.55:1 and a pan-and-scan hack job. Color has the richness of color films from this era, but the palette never becomes garish or unnatural. The picture is reasonably clean and sharp; altogether, it's a quietly attractive transfer, which doesn't distract from the suspense. Audio is presented in a 2.0 mix as well as mono; in stereo, the default track, the music is a bit flat and tinny, probably reflecting the limitations of recording technology of the day, but the audio overall features effective separation. The only extra offered is the film's trailer.
I'm not a fan of war films in general, but The Man Who Never Was was fascinating viewing. I particularly liked that it showed a side of war that I don't usually hear about: the careful thought, preparation, and downright cunning that goes into victory. Whether or not you find World War II an interesting subject, this intellectual cat-and-mouse game is a fascinating story, ably presented.
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