The Man Who Never Was (1956) Starring Clifton Webb, Robert Flemyng, Josephine Griffin, Stephen Boyd, Gloria Grahame, Michael Hordern, Geoffrey Keen.
Directed by Ronald Neame.
Running time: 103 minutes
A cold calculating Nazi spy (Boyd) who affects an Irish accent infiltrates Britain during World War II and susses out an elaborate counterespionage ploy by Britain. Can he alert Berlin in time? Or perhaps more importantly will he be fooled enough to give Berlin the wrong information?
British Naval intelligence boldly creates a fictional man (real corpse though) named William Martin, gives him a commission in the Royal Marines and places upon his person documents relating to an Allied invasion of Greece to throw the Nazis off of the scent of their real invasion target of Sicily.
The British strategy is so daring it borders on insane but wars are often won on such risks and lost on a failure to take enough of them. Wars are horrific things and World War II was absolutely one of the most horrific. The strategic clash of wills it played host to however continues to provide fodder for some first rate cinematic narratives like that which is seen in this production.
Boyd finds a cool menace beneath a charming lilt and polite exterior maintaining it for the short duration of his time on screen. Every once in awhile during that time a look in his eye unexpectedly reveals the duplicitous tendencies we know are there from almost the moment he appears.
But what makes him most convincing are his displays of pure gullibility and stupidity. Germany dropped the ball in many different ways during World War Two. They did not have radar or aircraft carriers when either would almost certainly have allowed them to conquer Britain. They also really blew it on the intel side of the war. Nazi spies were routinely detected, rounded up and captured in Britain and America with embarrassing frequency. Boyd’s interpretation of the character reflects that ineptitude perfectly.
The very real drama comes from the realism that Naval intelligence has injected into their fictional William Martin character. They made him a little too real and look like they are caught a bit flatfooted when a spy comes ashore to check up on things.
Some have characterised counterintelligence as a game and others have characterised it as a science. It is neither one. It is in fact an art and as such is comprised of studied repetiton and crucial variation. The ruse employed here is a classic example.
This is a very different kind of spy film than the James Bond movies which came out several years after this was produced. It is actually much better hard spy fiction for those ready to look at espionage in a more mature, nuanced, realistic light.
With everything that is good about it there is however one criticism I have in regards to pacing. Clocking in at a brisk 103 minutes might make you feel just a tad cheated if you pay to rent it. The ending comes far too quickly and the duration of certain very effective performances (like that of Boyd and Grahame) on screen might leave you wanting more.
It is always a good idea to check a movie’s running time beforehand in order to coordinate bathroom breaks. In the case of this title and its initial release over half a century ago those who went to freshen up and missed five minutes in many cases likely wished they had waited for the movie to end first.