The Man Who Never Was (1956)


(director: Ronald Neame; screenwriter: Nigel Balchin/from book by Ewen Montagu; cinematographer: Oswald Morris; editor: Peter Taylor; cast: Clifton Webb (Lt. Cmdr. Ewen Montagu), Gloria Grahame (Lucy Sherwood), Robert Flemyng (Lt. George Acres), Josephine Griffin (Pam), Stephen Boyd (Patrick O’Reilly), Andre Morell (Sir Bernard Spilsbury), Peter Sellers (Voice of Winston Churchill), William Russell (Joe), Michael Hordern (General Coburn); Runtime: 103; 20th Century-Fox; 1956-UK)
“This film is based on a true story, as revealed in a book by Ewen Montagu.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This film is based on a true story, as revealed in a book by Ewen Montagu. It’s a classic spy story, that is efficiently told but in a leaden way. It maintains interest throughout but failing overall to be very entertaining. It has a bold plot but a tepid romance. Though the film lacks action, there’s lots of brainpower emanating from the members of the British Intelligence Department during WW 11.

Clifton Webb as Lt. Cmdr. Ewen Montagu, gives a commanding performance in a rather offbeat kind of role for him.

The film is set in springtime, in the London of 1943. The British are concerned about taking the German stronghold of Sicily and are searching for a plan to save as many of their soldiers’ lives as possible by catching the Germans off their guard from the expected attack.

Montagu, while working for British Intelligence, masterminds a brilliant scheme to fool the Germans as to the point of attack. He uses the body of a British citizen who recently died from pneumonia and disguises him as a fictitious Major William Martin, uniform and all, and plants on him: false I.D.’s indicating that he’s a special operative, a love letter from his girlfriend, and a letter signed by Adm. Mountbatten telling of plans to attack Greece instead of Sicily. Montagu’s assistant, Lt. George Acres (Flemyng), helps him get the body from a hospital and plans with him the placing of the body on a boat which will drop the body off on the coast of neutral Spain, where it will easily wash ashore because of the strong tide and allow the Germans to think that Martin was in a plane crash and died from drowning. The hope is that in the town that they have chosen, where a known master German spy resides, there will be a report made to his superiors. Spain was also chosen because it doesn’t have the facilities to thoroughly examine the body for cause of death.

Pam (Josephine Griffin), who works in Montagu’s office and secretly loves him, is chosen to write the love letter; but, her roommate, the more lively one in the romance department, Lucy Sherwood (Gloria Grahame), who works as a librarian and is seeing a British pilot, takes charge and writes the letter and thereby becomes the designated girlfriend of the fictitious marine major.

The last quarter of the film details how methodically both the Germans and the British try to use their intelligence operations to their benefit. The Germans send an espionage agent from Ireland to London, to make inquiries to determine whether a Major Martin really existed. Patrick O’Reilly (Stephen Boyd) checks where the major bought his shirts, his social club membership, his bank account info and most importantly he checks with Lucy about her relationship with Martin.

The acting was crisp by the supporting cast and especially on the part of the star, Clifton Webb. I found only Gloria Grahame to be strained in her performance, over dramatizing her part. Her counterpart Josephine Griffin had the right amount of nervous awkwardness in her performance to make it a credible one. The film is a study in minute detail of how the British pulled off this amazing WW 11 spy caper and it is worth seeing for that alone.