Man Who Never Was, The (1956): Ronald Neame’s Espionage Thriller, Starring Clifton Webb, Gloria Grahame and Robert Flemyng

Ronald Neame directed The Man Who Never Was, an espionage thriller starring Clifton Webb, Gloria Grahame and Robert Flemyng.

Based on the book by Lt. Cmdr. Ewen Montagu, it chronicles Operation Mincemeat, a 1943 British intelligence plan to deceive the Axis powers into thinking Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of Sicily, would take place elsewhere in the Mediterranean.

The Man Who Never Was played at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival.

In 1943, Royal Navy Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu (Clifton Webb) devises a scheme to deceive the Nazis about the impending invasion of Southern Europe. It entails releasing a dead body just off the coast of Spain, where strong currents will drift it ashore. The corpse will appear as a plane crash victim, the non-existent Royal Marine, Major William Martin, who is carrying false letters about a forthcoming Allied invasion of German-occupied Greece, rather than the obvious target of Sicily.

Montagu procures the body of a man who died of pneumonia from the grieving father.  The submarine travels to the Mediterranean before surfacing at night to release the body. As hoped, the body washes ashore on a Spanish beach and is processed by local authorities, observed by German and British consulate staff.

Hitler is convinced the document is genuine, even though the head of the Abwehr––Admiral Wilhelm Canaris––is skeptical. To that extent, he sends (Stephen Boyd), a pro-German IRA spy, dispatched to London, to investigate. O’Reilly checks into a story he had heard concerning Martin’s “fiancée.” Lucy Sherwood (Gloria Grahame). She is the roommate of Montagu’s assistant, Pam (Josephine Griffin). O’Reilly shows up at their flat, posing as Martin’s old friend, on the same day Lucy received news that her real boyfriend has been killed in action. Her genuine grief mostly convinces O’Reilly. As a final test, however, he informs Lucy of the address of his lodgings in north London, telling Lucy to contact him if she needs anything. He then informs his German superiors by radio to expect a message from him in an hour, unless British counterintelligence comes for him. Montagu almost makes this very mistake, but realises in time why O’Reilly left his address and, with some difficulty, convinces his superiors not to order O’Reilly arrested. O’Reilly then sends a “Martin genuine!” radio message, and the Germans transfer most of their Sicily-based forces to Greece, making the Allied deception successful.
After the war, Montagu leaves a medal he was awarded at the grave of “the man who never was”.
Clifton Webb as Lt. Cmdr. Ewen Montagu
Gloria Grahame as Lucy Sherwood
Robert Flemyng as Lt. George Acres
Josephine Griffin as Pam
Stephen Boyd as Patrick O’Reilly
Laurence Naismith as Adm. Cross
William Russell as Joe (Lucy’s fiancé)
Geoffrey Keen as Gen. Archibald Nye
Moultrie Kelsall as the Father
Cyril Cusack as Taxi Driver
André Morell as Sir Bernard Spilsbury
Michael Hordern as Gen. Coburn
William Squire as submarine commander Bill Jewell
Allan Cuthbertson as Vice-Admiral
Joan Hickson as Landlady
Terence Longdon as Larry (as Terence Longden)
Gibb McLaughlin as Club Porter
Gordon Bell as Customs Officer
Ewen Montagu as an Air Vice Marshal (uncredited)
Historical accuracy[edit]
Operation Mincemeat involved the acquisition and dressing up of a human cadaver as a “Major William Martin, R.M.” and putting it into the sea near Huelva, Spain. Attached to the dead body was a briefcase containing fake letters falsely stating that the Allied attack would be against Sardinia and Greece rather than Sicily, the actual point of invasion. When the body was found, the Spanish Intelligence Service passed copies of the papers to the German Intelligence Service which passed them on to their High Command. The ruse was so successful that the Germans still believed that Sardinia and Greece were the intended objectives weeks after the landings in Sicily had begun.
The exact identity of the “man who never was” has been the centre of controversy since the end of the war. On the one hand, certain accounts claim the true identity of “Major William Martin” was a homeless, alcoholic rat-catcher from Aberbargoed, Wales, Glyndwr Michael, who had died by self-administering a small dose of rat poison. However, in 2002, authors John and Noreen Steele published the non-fictional account of The Secrets of HMS Dasher, about an ill-fated escort carrier that exploded and sank in the Firth of Clyde around the time Operation Mincemeat had commenced. The Steeles argued that “Major Martin’s” body was actually that of seaman John Melville, one of the Dasher’s casualties. Further, it has been reported that the accuracy of this claim was verified by the Royal Navy in late October 2004,[3] and a memorial service was held for Melville, in which he was celebrated as one whose “memory lives on in the film The Man Who Never Was…we are gathered here today to remember John Melville as a man who most certainly was.” But in fact, Professor Denis Smyth, a researcher at the University of Toronto, has counter-argued that Glyndwr Michael was indeed the real “Major Martin.” To support his claims, Smyth published the contents of a secret memo and an official report, both authored by Ewen Montagu himself, confirming the Glyndwr Michael story.[4]
Regardless of the identity of Major Martin, Nigel Balchin’s script stayed as close to the truth as was convenient, yet the film does fall back on some dramatization. For example, the episode of the Irish spy, O’Reilly, is a complete fabrication. The British Security Service controlled the German spy network in the UK with its Double-Cross System, though this fact was still secret at the time the film was made. Ewen Montagu declared that he was happy with the fictitious incidents which, although they did not happen, might have happened. During filming, Montagu has a cameo role, that of a Royal Air Force air vice-marshal who has doubts about the feasibility of the proposed plan. It was described by Ben Macintyre in Operation Mincemeat as a “surreal” moment when the real Montagu addressed his fictional persona, played by Webb.[5]
The film earned an estimated $1.1 million in North American rentals in 1956.[6]
The Radio Times wrote, “the picture may appear overly reverent by today’s standards. But this is still a crucial wartime spy tale that is well worth watching.”[7]
The Goon Show[edit]
The BBC’s popular radio comedy show, The Goon Show, made a send-up of the story of The Man Who Never Was (based on the book) and incorporated most of the regular Goon Show characters. Written by Spike Milligan and Larry Stephens, the first version of the script formed two-thirds of the episode broadcast on 31 March 1953, before the film’s release, with the first third comprising a separate sketch. Like most of these early episodes, this no longer exists. Milligan and Stephens later wrote a full-length version which was broadcast on 20 March 1956. Milligan later revised this script for the episode broadcast on 17 February 1958.[8] Both of the later versions have been issued on CD sets. Coincidentally, Peter Sellers (one of the Goons) provided the voice of Winston Churchill in the film, although the character did not appear in The Goon Show adaptation.