Monday, November 5, 2012

Reeling Backward: "The Man Who Never Was" (1956)

"The Man Who Never Was" is a crime caper built inside a war film. It's the (mostly) true story of the one of the biggest hoaxes ever played, with the winner earning not stacks of money but sums of lives -- 30,000 Allied soldiers spared, by some reckoning.

Operation Mincemeat was one of the those things that sounds elegantly simple in abstract: British Intelligence would dump a body with secret documents detailing an Allied invasion of Greece -- not Sicily, where everyone (including their Axis enemies) was sure the blow would fall. The Germans would find the documents, route their forces elsewhere, and a victory secured with greatly reduced bloodshed.

And that's exactly what did happen.

In execution, though, the scheme was frighteningly convoluted and could have come apart at the seams in any number of ways. Ewen Montagu, the real-life intelligence officer who cooked up the idea -- adapted from one suggested by RAF Lieutenant Charles Cholmondeley -- wrote a 1953 best-selling book after his team's exploits were declassified. It, and the movie adaptation three years later, lays out all the details of the operation with some engaging storytelling.

It was such a fiendishly good idea, in fact, that the Allied forces tried replicating it several more ties during the course of World War II. German intelligence forces, of course, were none too keen on repeating their mistake. This actually translated into other instances captured cinematically in which the Germans ignored crucial intelligence that fell into their lap. For instance, there's a scene in "A Bridge Too Far" where a German soldier captures a map of Allied bridge objectives, but when he turns it in his commanders dismiss it as a ruse. That really did happen.

The chief challenge facing Montagu, played by Clifton Webb, was finding a body and preserving it in such a way that the Germans would think the man had died in an airplane crash at sea and his body floated ashore several days later. After consulting with medical experts, he convinces the father of a young fellow who died of pneumonia to donate the body, no questions asked. They would store the body in a special container filled with dry ice, and a submarine launch it a mile off the shore of Spain -- where the supposedly neutral government would cooperate with a German investigation.

The steps Montagu and his team (Robert Flemyng plays his sidekick) took to convince the Germans the body belonged to a real British Royal Marine were truly astounding. Dubbing the man William Martin, they concocted all sorts of fake papers and records. His death was published in the regular newspaper rolls of war dead. They even stuffed theater tickets, a clothing store receipt, keys and other personal articles into his pockets.

The most intriguing trickery was inventing a fiance for young Willy Martin. They enclosed a love letter from a fictional sweetheart in his pocket, and a receipt for an engagement ring. In the movie the sweetheart is played by Gloria Grahame as Lucy Sherwood, a buxom American gal who is the roommate of Pam (Josephine Griffin), Montagu's assistant. Spurned in her own romantic misadventures, Lucy dictates a convincing letter of yearning and regret that the intelligence officers find positively enthralling.

The last third or so of the movie is pure flimflam. It involves a German spy posing as an Irishman (Stephen Boyd) who is sent to London to inquire after Willy's activities to see if they're legit. This eventually leads him to the doorstep of Pam and Lucy, where the latter, having actually just been told of the death of her flyboy beau, convinces the interloper that she's genuinely devastated.

The culmination is Montagu and his men rushing over to the spy's whereabouts to arrest him, and suddenly pulling up and realizing they have to let him go. Otherwise, Montagu reasons, the Germans will have been tipped off to their ruse.

None of this occurred, but its makes for a satisfying conclusion to the movie. The real Montagu spoke approvingly of the changes -- he surely could not have minded being portrayed as a brilliant gumshoe in addition to a military intelligence strategist. The movie's final coda has Montagu placing the Order of the British Empire medal he received for his exploits on the fictional Willy Martin's grave in Spain.

In movie-making if not in war, myth always trumps history.

3 stars out of four

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