GREAT IMPOSTOR, THE(director: Robert Mulligan; screenwriter: from the novel by Robert Crichton/Liam O’Brien; cinematographer: Robert Burks; editor: Frederic Knudtson; music: Henry Mancini; cast: Tony Curtis (Ferdinand Waldo Demara, Jr., and various aliases), Edmond O’Brien (Capt. Glover), Arthur O’Connell (Warden Chandler), Gary Merrill (Pa Demara), Joan Blackman (Catherine Lacey), Raymond Massey (Abbot Donner), Karl Malden (Father Devlin, St. Augustine School), Frank Gorshin (Barney, inmate in federal prison), Robert Middleton (R.C. Brown, prison guard), Mike Kellin (Clifford Thompson, prisoner in maximum security section); Runtime: 113; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Robert Arthur; Universal-International; 1961)
“A biopic about a likable impostor and dreamer that’s set in the 1950s, and is ably played by Tony Curtis.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A biopic about a likable impostor and dreamer that’s set in the 1950s, and is ably played by Tony Curtis. It’s based on the true story about Ferdinand Waldo Demara Jr., someone who wanted to be somebody but didn’t have the will power to take the hard road and work for it and instead took shortcuts. It’s directed by Robert Mulligan (“Fear Strikes Out”) from the novel by Robert Crichton and the screenplay is by Liam O’Brien.
It opens with the arrest of the Canadian Ferdinand Waldo Demara, Jr. (Tony Curtis) by Coast Guard officials, off of New England’s Haven Island, for impersonating numerous professionals such as a Yale professor, a Trappist monk, a prison warden, and a navy physician, including his current alias, that of a concerned elementary school teacher. The film goes into flashback as Demara recalls the events that have caused his arrest.
We learn how in his youth he was encouraged to chase his dreams by his failure father and failed to heed the advice of his friendly parish priest Father Devlin (Karl Malden) to be realistic and become only what you are really suited for. Demara quits high school despite good grades because he’s impatient to seek his fortune in the world. When turned down for an army officer because of his limited education, he resorts to forging his credentials to those of a noted Yale prof and gets accepted as a marine officer. When told of an FBI check, he fakes a suicide and tries next his hand at being a Trappist monk. He’s given the boot when he can’t live up to that strict ascetic life. His next adventure involves him arrested when drunk on moonshine given him by a farmer he gets a ride from. The FBI nabs him and he’s sentenced to six years by the military for his fake suicide. In the prison Demara charms Warden Stone and wins his early release. He then poses as Warden Stone to fool Texas prison Warden Chandler (Arthur O’Connell). As Chandler’s assistant he initiates humane treatment for the prison, and his efforts improve conditions so much he wins the respect and trust of even the hardened inmates. When a new prisoner named Barney (Frank Gorshin) recognizes him from military prison and threatens him with blackmail, Demara returns home. After confessing to Father Devlin, he refuses to turn himself in and instead joins the Royal Canadian Navy with the phony credentials of physician Dr. Joseph C. Mornay. Demara bones up on medical knowledge, and gets away with his impostor role. He even falls in love with military nurse Catherine Lacey (Joan Blackman), performs miraculous life saving operations from those attacked by ship during the Korean conflict, and follows that up by opening a hospital in Chinnampo. There he earns an international rep as “The Miracle Doctor,” but his photo in the paper alerts the real Dr. Mornay who exposes him as a fraud. It leads back to the film’s beginning and we see Demara escape through a porthole, from the cabin of a ship, even though all his former employers say he did good work and refuse to press charges and Catherine has forgiven him–even willing to marry him. Many years later FBI agent Sgt. Wilkerson is on Demara’s trail, but what the Feds fail to realize is that Wilkerson is, in fact, none other than Demara.
The episodic film was shot like a docudrama and wavers between frothy comedy and melodrama, but never mounts much tension, is clumsy and seems far too pat for my taste. Many of the episodes in Demara’s life never reached the screen and some of those that did were not that well presented.
REVIEWED ON 10/20/2006 GRADE: C+
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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