The Man Who Never Was


Operation Mincemeat aims to fool the enemy with a well placed body.

This 1956 movie is one I’ve seen several times, always recommend and jumped at the chance to watch again and finally write about. It may not seem like the greatest thriller or war movie ever made, but I love it, and it gives me so much to enjoy and think about every time I watch it. With great acting and a deceptively simple approach, it drives home the idea that a huge operation involving tens of thousands of people, and by extension such a massive thing as an entire war, can hinge on one person, or even less than that, not only one person but one decision, one brief moment, one miniscule bit of timing and a good deal of luck, can determine the course of history.


The outcome of an invasion and battle in WW2 depends in this plot on a few compelling players and one clever idea hatched by a Royal Navy Commander (Clifton Webb) and Lt. (Robert Flemyng). The plan is to drop a British officer’s body in uniform, carrying fake papers “exposing” top secret information, and let it wash up on a shore in order to fool the Germans into diverting resources away from Sicily before invasion. This body will be called Major Willie Martin and everything on it must be convincing. They must find a young man who has preferably died of pneumonia, so that to an average autopsy he will seem to have drowned. Along with the official letters, the officers need something human and personal, so they have their assistant (Josephine Griffin) write up a love letter. Griffin’s roommate, played by Gloria Grahame, helps her with this letter, making it unique, pouring into it all her own passion, yearning and worries for her own fiance who’s gone on a mission (William Russell), which makes for a moving genuine article. Off goes “Willie” on dry ice in a canister, to be found on the coast of Spain, where there are known German agents, but unskilled forensics.

Director Ronald Neame, who did everything from musical (Scrooge) to spectacle (The Poseidon Adventure), gives you a movie where the action and excitement comes from devising a plan, setting it up, not overlooking anything and waiting for the enemy’s response. So many lives depend on the success of this one gambit, yet somehow the film wrings great suspense out of waiting. Waiting for the slow moving beast of bureaucracy to approve an operation, waiting for someone’s misfortune in order for a body of the right age and cause of death to become available, waiting and hoping the currents will carry the body to the right place, obsessing over every detail, followed by more waiting. It’s a thriller about patience, if you can believe such a thing exists or would be interesting, about putting faith in well informed decisions, about all the non-flashy, even invisible but vital things and people you never think about when you think of history. This movie will make you think of them.

If you’re any kind of fan of Clifton Webb then you must see his fantastic understated turn in this role as Commander Montagu. He’s hyper analytic and clinical, with the starched rigidity, distance, stiff upper lip and veneer of authority, and with deadpan cutting sarcasm movie fans are used to seeing from him. But underneath all that he also conveys a wide range of deeper emotions: excitement, almost giddiness, over the plan he’s hatched, pride when it works, concern when it’s threatened, the gears furiously turning when a puzzle piece doesn’t fit, his insistence that he trusts his brain. Success often depends on Webb’s ability to persuade, and he does that well. Webb’s “crew” goes to the show in order to plant a real ticket stub in “Willie’s” pocket, and also have a welcome break from the stress, and while they laugh and enjoy, Webb stares into space, a man obsessed, clearly going over and over everything to make sure nothing’s been overlooked. When he talks to the father of the young man chosen to provide the body of Willie, Webb is sensitive, humble and respectful, even memorably shamed when he nearly offends the man’s father, saying the son’s actions will be for England, and the father says, ‘My son’s a Scotsman. You English always say England when you mean Britain!’

Webb’s cold exterior is a nice contrast to the actual spy of the movie, played by Stephen Boyd. Sent to investigate and confirm whether Willie is a real person, Boyd barely conceals his hatred toward the British, practically sneering and tossing attitude whenever given the chance. He’s petulant and his fake politeness quickly cracks to reveal a short fuse. His grin borders on disturbing and is mismatched to the hunky appeal that should win over the ladies but ends up creeping them out instead. He imposes, gets into people’s personal space, looks at them as if through a microscope; he’s unnerving, totally compelling and really good.

The whole ruse ends up coming down to a cosmic bit of timing that sees Grahame’s real fiance killed right when Boyd comes snooping around the ladies’ flat. After Griffin squirms under Boyd’s questions, and remembers she will give herself away by letting Boyd see her handwriting, Grahame comes home drunk and devastated with grief. She conveniently and believably answers all Boyd’s doubts and queries with statements about her own “real” situation. Boyd comes away mostly convinced but leaves one more bread crumb that will seal the deal either way–his address.

Boyd waits in his flat, acting on the logic that if Willie is fake, then he’s sure to be arrested after circling this close to the truth. Will the British make the right move now, or even understand that there is one left to make? The debate over whether or not Boyd will be waiting at the location for his arrest, or if the man won’t be there is nice little play on the title. It’s a motif you’d inevitably find in any spy tale, but here you notice it woven throughout the story, since almost every element depends on secrecy and absence. Grahame fiance is away and eventually no longer there, Webb and others wait for Boyd’s appearance at the bank where he has made an appointment to inquire about Willie, but he never appears, and so on. Grahame in her grief asks Boyd whether her fiance/Willie/anyone ever existed, now that he’s dead, which is a nice little moment of suspense and also throws Boyd for a loop. But Willie did exist, which provides another fine moment for Webb, as he visits the grave in Spain and rests a medal on the man who never was but did so much.

As if all that weren’t enough for a movie buff, may I also offer you Peter Sellers doing the voice of Winston Churchill, who is heard from his office approving operation Mincemeat?


This post is part of the Snoopathon, an investigation into spy/espionage movies hosted by Movies, Silently

image sources

23 thoughts on “The Man Who Never Was”

  1. I think it’s an excellent movie, gripping all the way through. For me, Boyd almost walks away with it. We haven’t had that many stars from Northern Ireland all told, and I was always happy to hear my own accent on screen – although he affected more of a southern variation in this movie.

    1. I agree he does a great job, I like him in anything anyway 🙂 but he pulled off that sinister side so well. I love the bit at the men’s club when he makes “thanks all the same” sound like a curse. I finally got a look at the widescreen version this time around, even better!

  2. I haven’t seen this film since I was of an age where the details went over my head. You had me on the edge of my seat with your description and praise for the performances. I look forward to seeing it again – for the first time.

    1. Thank you and yes there are a lot of movies that one can forget and rediscover, just as much fun as a new one; hopefully you find it lives up to my praise 🙂

  3. The Russell Crowe/Leonardo DiCaprio misfire BODY OF LIES is based on a novel where they do an operation that was inspired by Mincemeat, so I read up on the original story and then saw this movie. I have to admit, while I find the details of the operation fascinating, I do find the movie uneven. I do like Webb in the film, as well as Grahame in an atypical role, but I feel the film gets bogged down at times. However, you make a good case for it so I’ll give it another try one of these days.

    1. very interesting, curious to see the newer one to compare. I didn’t even get into it but there were liberties taken with the real story even in the 56 version, with the identity of Willie etc. Thanks for reading!

    1. that was a new fact on me! Seen it 3 times before but only discovered that about Sellers doing more research for this post. At the time (without looking it up) I guess he would’ve been in the Goon Show, which is another thing to discover

    1. Thank you, I’ll be interested to hear what you think of it, one of those you feel not enough people have seen and want to tell people about.

  4. This movie has always been a favorite of mine, especially for Clifton Webb and Gloria Grahame’s performance. Thank you for writing about it.

  5. Great post, thanks! I just read OPERATION: MINCEMEAT by Ben Macintyre about this very operation. It’s a fascinating, incredibly researched book about the true story behind the “fake” man set adrift off the coast of Spain. I’ve been meaning to watch this film to see what they make of the story. Apparently it’s based off a book written by the real Montagu, but they had to change some things even in 1956 to protect national security. Thanks for this excellent review! Boyd’s grin is really creepy…

    1. I came across a lot about the book and the differences in the adaptation when researching, it’s a whole post in itself. The nationality of Willie was one of the things they changed for example. Interesting background to an already good movie. Thanks for reading

  6. Great post! I really must watch this. The whole idea of a ‘man who never was’ is endlessly fascinating; I remember struggling with the concept for a long time in history lessons when I was a kid! The recent attempts to uncover the true identity have, for me, only added to the intrigue. It’s the stuff of spy legend!

    1. it is, and I am remembering that was probably my initial interest in it too, just that title/idea. also the idea of the sacrifices made that we never even know about, and how close they come to not working! just a weird thing of timing can make or undo history. thanks for reading!

  7. What a cool idea for a film! I love this sort of espionage story, so thanks for bringing it to my attention. Also, thank you for introducing me to ‘in color’ photos of Gloria Grahame…before, I’d only ever seen her in black-and-white!

    1. yes it is interesting to see her at this time in her life too, looks a little different because of color and also because she was experimenting with changing her look, shall we say. still the same compelling Gloria though and she gets some really good scenes here. Thanks for reading

  8. I’m another who hasn’t seen this film in an age. After reading your review I ordered it from Amazon . I’m glad you’ve brought it to the attention of everyone.
    I guess Fox brought Clifton Webb and Gloria Grahame over to the UK in the hope the film would play in the States. They were both very good and of course Stephen Boyd.
    The attention to detail for the imaginary officer was amazing.
    The two scenes that stand out for me are when Gloria,having drank quite a lot,talks about her lost love and Boyd believes she is talking about Willie Martin.
    And Stephen Boyd sitting in that dingy room watching the clock, with a gun in his hand.

    1. well you remember it very clearly, those were such good scenes– it’s amazing actually the suspense that was wrung from those parts, that really sound so mild on paper. Grahame’s especially, you just wait for her to slip and say the wrong thing the whole way, and Boyd is closely watching the reactions. she just manages to step through the minefield, barely. thanks for reading.

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