Man in the Middle (1964)



(director: Guy Hamilton; screenwriters: Willis Hall/Keith Waterhouse/based on Howard Fast’s novel The Winston Affair; cinematographer: Wilkie Cooper; editor: John Bloom; cast: Robert Mitchum (Lt. Col. Barney Adams), France Nuyen (Kate Davray), Barry Sullivan (Gen. Kempton), Trevor Howard (Maj. Kensington), Keenan Wynn (Lt. Winston), Sam Wanamaker (Maj. Kaufman) Robert Nichols (Lt. Bender), Gary Cockrel (Lt. Morse), Alexander Knox (Col. Burton), Russell Napier (Col. Thomson), Glenn Beck (Cpl. Burke); Runtime: 94; 20th Century-Fox; 1964-UK)
“The film’s liberal message can be viewed as a muddled one.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The man in the middle is caught in a political dilemma of whether to advance his career and go along with what the Army wants or to buck the system and defend a man who is guilty but mentally sick. Lt. Col. Barney Adams (Robert Mitchum) is a war hero and career Army man, called on during the waning days of WW11 to defend a Lt. Winston (Keenan Wynn), accused of killing a British staff sergeant in cold blood. Barney hasn’t been in a courtroom in quite a while and only had one law case in his 18 years in service, so he is surprised when an old friend of his father’s, General Kempton (Barry Sullivan), asks the gimpy Purple Heart soldier to take the case. There is no doubt about his client’s guilt, he has even confessed, but the Americans want a guilty verdict in a court to appease their British partners as they prepare to do battle together. They hope that with the trial done legally and with a rigorous defense, that it would thereby reduce tension between the soldiers of both countries.

This melodramatic courtroom drama is set in India, in 1944, and is based on Howard Fast’s novel The Winston Affair. In an Army camp under joint British and American command, Lt. Winston marches into the quarters of the British soldier and shoots him in front of 11 witnesses. Barney is basically told by Kempton to put up a good fight but lose the case and let justice prevail as we hang the guilty man, thereby avoiding further embarrassment from the British. There is also a promotion to full-bird colonel awaiting Barney if he wraps up the case in the way the Army wants it. What the Army command doesn’t want is for Winston to get off on a plea of insanity.

Assigned to help Barney are Lt. Bender (Nichols) and Lt. Morse (Cockrel), two eager-beaver civilian lawyers in New York, who are draftees. They are prepared to work around the clock to defend their client. A black corporal (Beck) is assigned to be Barney’s driver, who drives Barney to the airport in the film’s conclusion. We see their black and white faces through the windshield, showing how integrated will be the Army of the future.

Barney during the trial meets a nurse, Kate Davray (Nuyen), who is half-French and half-Chinese, as he gets in a little interracial lovemaking with the serious-minded beauty between periods of preparing his case. She works for the psychiatrist, Major Kaufman (Wanamaker), who interviewed Winston after the murder and wrote a report that he was insane. But the major’s superior officer Col. Burton (Knox) rejected the report and took Kaufman off the case and had him transferred to another camp, as Burton formed a board of inquiry into the lunacy issue and found the accused to be sane by reason that he can determine right from wrong.

When Barney talks with his client Winston and asks why he committed murder, Winston says because he was defiling the white race–he’s not fit to live in a white man’s world. The film brings up a few interesting points about defending such an unappealing man and questions how legitimate is the insane plea, which if allowed to be used as a plea could really bog down the justice system with criminals trying to manipulate the system.

This stunningly well-photographed film in black and white, nevertheless, has no real tension in the courtroom dramatics. The film centers on Barney’s efforts to defend a client who doesn’t want his help; and, on the ability of a British major, Dr. Kensington (Trevor Howard), an acquaintance of Kaufman’s, to ascertain the mental competency of Winston and convince the court that Winston is insane. The filmmaker probably didn’t feel confident enough with Kensington’s testimony in favor of insanity and had Winston put on a show for the court to prove he was really nuts.

The film for all its soft spots, still had a good but enigmatic performance from Mitchum. But his motives for taking on the Army bigwigs and putting a dent in his career, are never made quite clear. Keenan Wynn was an appealing loony. While Nuyen’s role was to play up that racism wasn’t to be tolerated — that even though she resents a racist like Winston, justice must be provided even for such a vile person. The film was interesting enough in spots to hold my attention, but it defeated its own purpose by making General Kempton so politically immoral and Wynn so nutty that the film’s liberal message can be viewed as a muddled one.