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The Man Who Never Was

As the most-documented military conflict in movie history, World War II has offered filmmakers a wealth of material, from epic campaigns (The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far, The Battle of the Bulge) to small, masterful dramas that utilized the war as a backdrop (Notorious, Casablanca), and even comedies (To Be Or Not To Be, Operation Petticoat). But among the most tantalizing entries in the genre are those that present a secret history of the six-year conflict — offering tales of strategy and skullduggery on which the outcome of the entire war may hinge. Often, these are fictionalized, quasi-roman á clefs, such as The Dirty Dozen and Destination Tokyo. But sometimes truth is more fascinating that fantasy, as seen in The Dam Busters, which carefully traces the development of the ingenious British bombs. Another British film is a similar highlight, Ronald Neame's The Man Who Never Was, which tells the true story of how one dead body led they way for the Allied invasion of Sicily. Based on a book by the film's lead character, Clifton Webb stars as Lt. Cmdr. Ewen Montagu, a British officer attached to intelligence who is caught up in the dominant military problem of the day — with British forces dominant on the North African coast, the Germans are all but assured of a European invasion, and Sicily is the most likely landing. Aware that their casualties will run as high as 30 percent in the face of German defenses, the British wonder how to catch "Jerry" off-guard. It's Montagu who comes up with the most fiendish plan, which he proposes to his superiors: What if they were to float a corpse from the Mediterranean towards the Spanish coast, where it would wash up and be intercepted by Nazi spies? And what if the corpse contained valuable, albeit false, papers indicating the British were planning to invade Greece instead of Sicily? After the plan is debated and finally approved (by Churchill himself), the meticulous preparations are begun. But once the mission is completed, Montagu and his colleagues realize that the Germans have grave doubts, and before long the enemy sends an operative into the heart of London to determine if the papers found on the Spanish coast are genuine.

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A war film in which not a single shot is fired, The Man Who Never Was represents a pleasant change of pace for fans of the genre. Director Ronald Neame brings a steady hand to the proceedings, and while some might declare that he's a bit too reverent with the story, the script's attention to meticulous detail matches the covert operation itself — with every step, Montagu walks himself through the ruse and consults experts for advice, determined that the Germans are never provided a shred of evidence to believe that the papers are not bona fide. The unnamed body itself (that of a young Scotsman who died of pneumonia) is also shown due respect with a somber burial at sea, while the second act switches up the pace as a handsome Irish spy working for the Nazis (Stephen Boyd) tips his hand, forcing Montagu to convince Scotland Yard that the best action is to take no action at all. The film's only weak note is Gloria Grahame as a token American star who plays a pivotal role in the story — her performance is fine, if a bit melodramatic, but her noir gun-moll accent collides with the refined tones that surround her. Ultimately, the film belongs to Clifton Webb, who carries the bulk of the scenes and barely manages to smile once. He conducts himself as an officer and a gentleman — it's a manner that not only marks the Brits' "take it on the chin" resolve during wartime, but also reminds us why British filmmaking during this era was so appealing. Fox's DVD release of The Man Who Never Was offers a good anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) of the CinemaScope picture with both the original mono audio and a Dolby Digital 4.0 track. The audio is clear throughout, while the source-print is of good quality, showing little more than some color desaturation. Theatrical trailer, keep-case.
—Robert Wederquist

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