Tuesday, July 8, 2008

A military procedural?

Yesterday's showing of He Walked By Night got me thinking about another movie that focuses a lot on crime procedure, albeit with a decidedly military twist: The Man Who Never Was.

Clifton Webb stars in this dramatization of a true story as Ewen Montagu, a British Army Commander working with the high command in London during World War II. It's the period just before the Allies invaded Italy. Everybody knows that Sicily is the obvious place for the Allies to start their invasion of the Continent, and the Germans and Italians have consequently massed their forces in Sicily. The thinking goes that if only the Allies can somehow convince the Axis powers that the invasion might come not in Sicily, but Greece, they might move some of their troops there to defend against the possible invasion, leading to fewer deaths (and an easier time of defeating the Nazis, of course). The problem, of course, is how to convince the Nazis to move some of their troops to Greece. Eventually, the solution is reached that if the Nazis could just happen to come across some planted information discussing an invasion of Greece, they might fall for it, a state of affairs which is much easier said than done.

The first half of the movie plays out almost like the police procedurals, or peraphs like an episode of CSI in reverse. Eventually, the decision is made to have the body of a dead British officer wash ashore along the coast of Spain, with him carrying the information on the grounds that he's also got information of a personal nature that the higher ups wouldn't want sent through the normal channels. The British can't just kill somebody for their purposes, though, and anyhow have to find somebody who looks as though he's drowned. Eventually, all of the details -- or at least, every one they can think of -- are attended to, and the dead body is transported in secrecy to its eventual launching off Spain

The second half of the movie is just as good as the first half: the Fascist authorities in Spain find the body, and the intelligence information it's carrying is passed on straight away to the Germans. The Germans respond with a natural dose of skepticism, eventually deciding to send an Irish collaborator to Britain to check up on the dead "officer". (The collaborator is played by Stephen Boyd, who is probably best known for playing Massala in the Charlton Heston version of Ben-Hur. Boyd's scenes are fraught with tension, as some of the possible glitches in the British plan dawn on British intelligence, forcing them to make quick decisions about what to do to ensure the plan doesn't go wrong. There's one particularly good scene involving the roommate of the girlfriend of Webb's fellow officer. This woman, played by Gloria Grahame, nearly causes the plan to go awry through no fault of her own, as she's found that her officer-boyfriend has just been killed in action -- although that might actually be a good thing for the sake of the plan.

The Man Who Never Was is Clifton Webb's movie all the way, though. He plays what is an atypical role for him, having been almost typecast as a family man in light by the mid-1950s. (Amazing this, considering Webb had been so good in a movie like Laura at the very beginning of his career.) Webb provides enough seriousness to make the movie believable as it goes along, and enough intelligence to keep the British plan from falling apart at key points. Despite a relative paucity of action -- there's almost no violence, and Gloria Graham gets about the only emotional histrionics in the movie -- it's an outstanding movie that maintains its tension and suspsense, and should keep you waiting in anticipation to see how the British plan turns out. Happily, it's available on DVD for viewing any time you want; you don't have to wait for it show up on the Fox Movie Channel.

No comments: