The 1956 film The Man Who Never Was, directed by Ronald Neame and starring Clifton Webb, Robert Flemyng, Gloria Grahame, and Stephen Boyd, is a film-buff’s treat. The dramatic, or perhaps more accurately melodramatic, moments are somewhat dated, but the plot (based on an actual World War II event) is engrossing and the pathos surrounding the eponymous “Man” remains genuine even after sixty-five years.
It’s a story of deception, one concocted by Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu (Webb) of the Royal Naval Intelligence Division and R.A.F. Flight Lieutenant Charles Cholmondeley (who is renamed in the film Lt. George Acres, played by Flemyng). In short, the idea is to set adrift the body of Royal Marines Major “Robert Martin” whose plane crashed off the coast of neutral Spain. What’s so special about him? On his body is a packet containing plans to shift the allied invasion of Sicily to Greece. The thing is, the plans and the “officer” are bogus, but the hope is that the Spanish will leak the plan to the Germans who will then divert troops to Greece, thereby saving British and American lives when the Sicilian operation actually occurs.
None of this is as easy as it sounds. For one thing, Montagu’s commanding officers, right up to Churchill himself, must buy the idea, which they eventually do; for another, getting a body of someone who appears to have drowned poses logistical and moral obstacles, as well as providing one of the most heart-rending scenes in the film.
As for the operation (spoiler alert!), entitled “Mincemeat,” it works, but not before the Germans do some spying to find out whether the body is for real. They achieve this by dispatching an Irishman O’Reilly (played by Boyd in, for my money, his best role), a dyed-in-the-wool Anglophobe, to go to London to ferret out the truth. Although this part of the movie is fictional (how could anyone actually know what “O’Reilly” was thinking or doing even if he existed?), his attempts to discover whether the drowned “Martin” actually lived, bought clothes at Gieves, and had a sweetheart provide The Man Who Never Was with some of its most nail-biting and sometimes chilling moments.
Why all the fuss about a sixty-plus-year-old movie? Well, it’s been remade, and, not to put too fine a point on it, very well. In many ways, such a project, remade or not, is guaranteed to attract an audience simply because many viewers, at least of a certain age, love World-War-II plots, especially those that deal in counterespionage.
But good acting and production qualities are necessary, and Operation Mincemeat (the new title) has both. Colin Firth plays Montagu, and Matthew Macfadyen gets the part of Cholmondeley. A host of excellent actors fill out the cast, Penelope Wilton and Jason Isaacs among the better known, who try to help or hinder the operation. The writers took some care in adding characters missing from The Man Who Never Was: Ian Fleming (played by Johnny Flynn) who, yes, really did have a part in the operation and even works on a spy novel on the side. (And I say, Why not?). Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald) provides the love letter “Martin” carries and the love interest that puts Montagu and Cholmondeley at odds.
This last point is something of a sore one. I haven’t found that Montagu or Cholmondeley fell in love with Jean Leslie or came close to fisticuffs out of jealousy. Heightened drama, as I’ve said, was a staple of films of yesteryear, and The Man Who Never Was had its share, in both plot and acting. Operation Mincemeat is much more sedate in style, but to avoid being a dramatized documentary, it’s got to create some conflict. It does, but the invention of the love triangle that never was strikes me as excessive though, alas, predictable.
And that’s not the only invention that bothers me. In place of O’Reilly the Irish spy, Operation Mincemeat inserts a British character who mysteriously appears at Jean’s flat, claiming to be a sympathizer with the German generals who want to assassinate Hitler. He wants to know whether “Martin” is for real and threatens to shoot her if she doesn’t tell. She gives him part of the truth but assures him of the veracity of the Greece landing. Is he what he claims? Only the success of the operation will tell, but should it be scrubbed altogether? Montagu, Cholmondeley, and their superiors must decide.
This sub-plot is all good and well since we don’t really know what happened with respect to German counter-counterespionage. But the story line is rushed, taking about fifteen minutes of the film, opposed to far better developed thirty-five minutes in The Man Who Never Was, and, to put it bluntly, the suspense in the newer effort won’t exactly kill you.
Still, whatever complaints I may have about that aspect of the script, Operation Mincemeat is worth seeing—and maybe more than once. Yet I can’t quite shake the feeling that The Man Who Never Was is the more memorable film. That old-fashioned drama may be a bit worn, but it is, overall, a more exciting, engaging movie. And the quietly eloquent final scene will give you a satisfying chill. Perhaps the best thing to do is watch both films; they are rewarding, if not equally so.