Spy 100, #18: The Man Who Never Was

Quiet, reserved, and free of action, The Man Who Never Was (1956) is an intelligent dramatization of Operation Mincemeat, an audacious Allied operation to mislead the enemy during World War II. It’s 1943, and the Allies have cleared German and Italian forces from North Africa. The next step in their liberation of Europe is to occupy Sicily, a strategic move that the Germans are certain to anticipate. Enter Lieutenant Commander Ewan Montagu (Clifton Webb), who’s assigned the task of misleading the enemy as to the Allies’ next strike. Together with his right hand man Lieutenant Akers (Robert Flemyng) and his aide Pam (Josephine Griffin), he dreams up a macabre scheme to feed false intelligence to the Germans on the dead body of “Major William Martin,” an entirely fictitious officer.

Hardly a thrill-ride, The Man Who Never Was isn’t likely to win over viewers who aren’t inherently interested in the subject matter. But it’s a smart, interesting little film about an actual operation that succeeded in paving the way for Allied successes in the Mediterranean. It does take some dramatic liberties, of course, to simplify events and manage the story’s scope. In particular, a subplot involving Pam’s roommate Lucy Sherwood (Gloria Grahame) is concocted; Lucy unwittingly becomes a key part of Martin’s legend, and a key supporting source of information for the German acceptance of Martin’s intel. Meanwhile, the German verification effort is embodied by one agent, “Patrick O’Reilly” (Stephen Boyd), who becomes the focal point of Montagu’s efforts to determine if the plan worked. These flights of fancy help make the film — which possesses a talky and not particularly cinematic plot — more entertaining. Solid spy film, especially for history buffs.

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