Tony Grist (poliphilo) wrote,
Tony Grist

The Man Who Never Was

The story is sort-of true. The British did drop a corpse loaded with fake papers into the sea off the Spanish coast and the Germans were fooled by it into moving resources from Sicily where the allied landings were to take place to other places where they didn't. Some elements of the scheme were still covered by the official secrets act in 1956- when the film was made- and some details may still be obfuscated- because we're talking about a crooked operation mounted by professionally crooked people. The nail-biting final half hour with the Nazi spy sleuthing round London in an attempt to falsify the story is entirely confected because- as hadn't yet been revealed in 56- every Nazi spy in England had been turned and was working as a double agent.

It's a fascinating story. A cerebral story. This is how you pull a fast one and then back it up. There are no heroics of the obvious kind, guns are unholstered but never fired and the leading characters are two oldish desk-wallahs, their secretary and her room-mate- buttoned up, highly strung people living in a town suffering nightly bombardment by the Luftwaffe. The scene in the tiled mortuary in which three men dress the corpse in its fake uniform, going about the unpleasant business with barely a flinch, while the noise of an air-raid creeps closer and closer has as much to say about the ghastliness of war as any orgy of bullets and high explosive. War, we are reminded, is only occasionally exciting. Mostly its just fear and threat and boredom and bereavement so lets stop doing it.

Director Ronald Neame fills his wide-screen with bleak, unlovely, unpeopled space. The script, by Nigel Balchin, is spare. Clifton Webb- bearded and birdlike- is odd but effective casting as the scammer in chief, Robert Fleyming realistically charmless (but perhaps this is a 21st century perspective) as his sex-pest of an assistant, Gloria Grahame puffy eyed and coming to pieces as the girl who knows her lover is going to die. One believes in all these people to the extent of not actually noticing that two of the actors are American.

In the opening moments we hear the voice of Winston Churchill- only not actually Churchill but a wholly convincing impersonation by a rising star of radio called Peter Sellers.

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