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