Cast & Crew
In London, in the spring of 1943, British Naval Intelligence ponders how to decoy German forces from the island of Sicily so that the British can launch their invasion there. To accomplish this, Lt. Cmdr. Ewen Montagu devises an ingenious scheme to make the Germans believe that the British are deploying troops to Greece, hoping to lure the Germans there from Sicily. To trick the Germans, Ewen plans to use a dead body, dressed in an officer's uniform and carrying top secret documents ordering the invasion of Greece. When Montagu and his assistant, Lt. George Acres, decide to make the body appear as if it were drowned following an air crash at sea, a doctor advises that a victim of pneumonia would appear to have drowned because of the water accumulated in the lungs. Dubbed "Operation Mincemeat," the strategy slowly develops to float the body off the coast of Spain where the current will carry it to shore. The danger is that if the plan fails, the Germans will know that Sicily is the target of the invasion. Montagu impatiently waits permission from the top brass until Prime Minister Winston Churchill finally gives the go-ahead. The project hits a snag, however, because no suitable body can be found until Montagu convinces the grieving father of a Scotsman to allow him to use his dead son's pneumonia-wracked body for the good of Britain. The next step is to fabricate an identity for the young man, whom they christen Maj. William Martin. Deciding that a love letter and a photograph of Martin's fiancée would create a touch of authenticity, Montagu asks his secretary Pam to write the letter, which will be slipped in Martin's wallet. Pam is helped by her lovelorn roommate, Lucy Sherwood, whose fiancé Joe, a fighter pilot, has just left for combat. Proceeding to the morgue, Montagu and Acres plant Lucy's photo and letter in Martin's wallet, along with several other personal documents, then meticulously dress the body and attach a briefcase bearing the secret documents to his wrist. They then place the body in a refrigerated canister labeled "optical instruments" and transport it to the naval base. There the canister is loaded aboard a submarine and transported to the Spanish coast, where the corpse is set adrift. After the body washes ashore, it is found by fishermen, and Spanish police then notify the British Vice-Consul about the death of Maj. Martin. After the "major" is given a military funeral and interred in Spanish soil, his briefcase is returned to Britain, where all the documents appear to be intact. Montagu fears that his mission has failed until a scientist examines the sealed papers and declares that they have been opened and photographed. In Germany, meanwhile, an eager Hitler proclaims that the photocopied documents are genuine, but German Intelligence remains skeptical and so sends an agent to verify their authenticity. The German, posing as Irishman Patrick O'Reilly, arrives in London, with a radio transmitter hidden in the bottom of his suitcase along with the copies of Martin's papers. O'Reilly's first stop is the men's wear shop whose address appeared on a bill for shirts found in Martin's wallet. After ascertaining that the shop sells the kind of shirts worn by Martin, O'Reilly scrutinizes a bank overdraft made out to Martin and phones the bank, claiming to be Martin's representative. The bank manager, who has been alerted to the plan, promptly notifies Montagu about the call, who turns to Scotland Yard for help. Lucy, meanwhile, learns that Joe has been killed in combat and goes into a state of shock. O'Reilly next goes to Lucy's apartment but finds Pam there instead. Posing as Martin's boyhood friend, O'Reilly asks to see Lucy. Just then, Lucy comes home drunk and when O'Reilly questions her about her fiancé, she replies he is dead and therefore never existed. After Lucy breaks down in tears and begins to ramble incoherently, O'Reilly gives her his address in case she is need of consolation. After he leaves, Pam passes the address onto Montagu, who alerts Scotland Yard. The cunning O'Reilly, meanwhile, contacts his superiors with the news that he has given his location to the enemy to see if they will come to arrest him, a sure sign that the Martin story is fictitious. As Montagu and the men of Scotland Yard speed to O'Reilly's address, Montagu realizes that it is a set-up and convinces the officers to allow O'Reilly to escape. When the police fail to appear, O'Reilly confirms that Martin is genuine and the Germans dispatch their troops to Greece, clearing the way for the British invasion of Sicily. Awarded a medal for service to his country, Montagu travels to Martin's resting place in Spain and places it on his grave.
D. A. Clarke-smith
Sinfonia Of London
J. B. Smith
The Man Who Never Was
The answer was Operation Mincemeat, a scheme devised by Ewen Montagu, an officer in British naval intelligence who later wrote the 1953 book that inspired this Ronald Neame movie. Under the plan, officials would print a set of bogus documents indicating that the Allies were actually preparing to invade nearby Sardinia and Greece, throwing the Germans off the Sicilian scent. The big problem with this idea was that the Germans would surely question the authenticity of any papers that came too conveniently into their hands. But they might fall for the ruse if they believed the documents had come under their eyes entirely by accident. Working with a small team of assistants, Montagu arranged for an elaborate subterfuge whereby a drowned man would be washed ashore - on a Spanish coastline where Germans would be pretty sure to find the body - with the papers hidden in his clothing.
That made sense on paper, but even in wartime, the British couldn't deliberately drown someone for the sake of deceiving the enemy. So now the challenge was to find the corpse of a suitably young man who had recently died from a lung disease, producing symptoms that would look like drowning when the Germans conducted an autopsy. Even when the right sort of corpse was found, permission to use it might be hard to obtain: "Every body belongs to somebody," says the officer in charge of the search, "and it isn't a thing people want messed about."
A suitable cadaver was finally located and the necessary permission was obtained from the father of the deceased on the condition that his name remain a secret, a commitment upheld by Nigel Balchin's screenplay, which refers to him only by his pseudonym. The movie ends with a poignant onscreen text: "Military security and respect for a solemn promise have made it necessary to disguise the identity of some of the characters...but in all other essentials this is the true story of 'Major William Martin'."
Much of The Man Who Never Was details the formulation of the plan, the many steps taken to create a convincing false identity for the supposedly drowned emissary and the key moment when the phony papers and their grim messenger are released into the sea from a submarine. The story takes a turn when German intelligence operatives examine the papers and conclude that they may not be genuine. Masquerading as Patrick O'Reilly, a dapper Irish gent, a German agent goes to London and looks for evidence of fakery by checking out places mentioned in the personal papers planted on Martin's body; his visit to a bank almost blows Martin's carefully constructed cover, but an alert bank manager and a call to Scotland Yard save the day.
Other important subplots involve Montagu's secretary, Pam, and her friend Lucy, who fabricate a love letter placed into Martin's wallet. In one of the film's most suspenseful episodes, O'Reilly confronts Lucy with questions about her alleged fiancé, about whom she knows next to nothing. Her grief over the death of her actual fiancé, a fighter pilot just killed in action, transforms her answer - that her fiancé doesn't exist - from a potentially disastrous revelation into a sign of deep emotional anguish. Moments like this make The Man Who Never Was an effective melodrama, but it's also a fine espionage yarn, and centering the plot on a nonexistent agent gives it a passing resemblance to Alfred Hitchcock's 1959 classic North by Northwest (1959).
The Man Who Never Was is a war movie without much in the way of war scenes, but director Neame keeps the story moving at a brisk pace, giving it enough bite and surprise to keep it involving from start to finish. Clifton Webb plays mildly against type as Lieutenant Commander Montagu, making a strong enough impression to remain a vivid presence even during the long stretch when the German agent dominates the story. Gloria Grahame and Josephine Griffin are excellent as Lucy and Pam, respectively, and Grahame delivers a stunning moment when a phone call at work informs her that her fiancé has been killed. Winston Churchill doesn't appear on the screen, but his voice is heard, impersonated by none other than the great comedian Peter Sellers in a non-comic performance that couldn't be more convincing.
Director: Ronald Neame
Producer: André Hakim
Screenplay: Nigel Balchin; Ewen Montagu (book)
Cinematographer: Oswald Morris
Film Editing: Peter Taylor
Art Direction: John Hawkesworth
Music: Alan Rawsthorne
Cast: Clifton Webb (Ewen Montagu), Gloria Grahame (Lucy Sherwood), Robert Flemyng (George Acres), Josephine Griffin (Pam),Stephen Body (Patrick O'Reilly), Laurence Naismith (Admiral Cross), Geoffrey Keen (General Nye), Moultrie Kelsall (father), Cyril Cusack (taxi driver), André Morell (Sir Bernard Spilsbury), Michael Hordern (General Cockburn), Allan Cuthbertson (vice-admiral), Joan Hickson (landlady), Terence Longden (Larry), Gibb McLaughlin (club porter)
by David Sterritt
The Man Who Never Was
Monty, that parachute that didn't open... Suppose we were to drop a fellow out of a plane over enemy territory, with papers on him saying we were going to invade Greece, and his parachute didn't open. The Germans would find him dead, and the papers, and "Aha," they'd say, "Look at this. Officer with secret papers, parachute didn't open... they're going to invade Greece."- Lieutenant George Acres
Do we tell the man who jumps that the parachute doesn't work, or is it a sort of practical joke that he finds out on the way down?- Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu
Well, of course it would have to be somebody you didn't mind much about.- Lieutenant George Acres
Are you volunteering? No, George, it wouldn't work.- Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu
What about using a man already dead?- Lieutenant George Acres
The autopsy would show he was dead before he hit the ground. Let's get back to the office and think again.- Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu
You know, Monty, what we really want is something absolutely simple, the simpler the better.- Lieutenant George Acres
Good boy, George, you're absolutely right.- Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu
Well, how about this: suppose we issue Greek dictionaries to all the troops. Why should we do that unless we intend to invade Greece? That would fool them.- Lieutenant George Acres
I should make it Eskimo dictionaries. That would really fool them.- Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu
Suppose I wanted to put a dead body in the sea, and let it float ashore, and have it accepted by the people who find it as the victim of an air crash at sea. What sort of body would I need?- Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu
I can assure you that this is an opportunity for your son to do a great thing for England.- Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu
My son, sir, was a Scotsman. Very proud of it.- The Father
I beg your pardon?- Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu
Never mind. We're used to that. You English always talk about England when you mean Britain.- The Father
Now, about dates. There's got to be something on him that will show when he left. I think I can fix to get a receipted bill from the Naval and Military Club -- he stayed there on his last night.- Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu
And he went to the theatre. Final celebration. He has the stubs of the tickets in his pocket.- Lieutenant George Acres
Item: two theatre tickets.- Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu
Make it four, and for something worth seeing.- Lieutenant George Acres
And what's going on in that bright little mind?- Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu
Well, we've got to buy the tickets anyway, and Willie can't use them -- we might as well! There are three of us already, and with Pam's alleged girlfriend...- Lieutenant George Acres
Ewen Montagu, the officer who was in charge of Operation Mincemeat, has a small cameo role as an air marshal.
The film opens with the image of a body washing up on shore. Over this image an offscreen narrator reads an excerpt from the Scottish ballad "The Battle of Otterburn": "Last night I dreamed a deadly dream/Beyond the Isle of Skye/I saw a dead man win a fight/And I think that man was I." This poem also closes the film. Onscreen credits end with the written disclaimer: "Military security and respect for a solemn promise have made it necessary to disguise the identity of some of the characters in this film, but in all other essentials this is the true story of 'Major William Martin'."
According to a February 1954 Hollywood Reporter news item, Twentieth Century-Fox purchased the rights to Ewen Montagu's novel, intending to have Nunnally Johnson script and produce the property. Montagu based his novel on a scheme he devised to deceive the Germans while he was a lieutenant commander in British Naval Intelligence. According to the Variety review, the scene in which the body washes up on shore was filmed in Spain. Although the Daily Variety review states that the film used the De Luxe color process, the Variety review states that the color process was Eastman Color. A June 1980 Hollywood Reporter news item notes that British actor Peter Sellers provided the offscreen voice of Winston Churchill.
Released in United States on Video June 27, 1991
Broadcast over SFM Holiday Network May 1990.
Released in United States Winter February 1956
Released in United States on Video June 27, 1991
Released in United States Winter February 1956