The Big Dead One

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I’d seen bits of THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS (1956) on Film4 and it looked like a snooze, but the Anne Billson said she liked it so I investigated.

Ronald Neame was never what you’d call an exciting director, but he was always an affable one. Having made his Significant Contribution to cinema in his collaborations with David Lean, he settled into Lightly Likable for most of his career, apart from a few bloated floaters at the end.

And talk of floaters brings us to this movie, in which British intelligence plants a corpse at sea carrying faked documents to fool the Nazis into expecting an attack from the wrong direction. It’s unlikely stuff, and largely true — I’m now reading Ben MacIntyre’s enjoyable Operation Mincemeat, which details exploits of the various eccentrics who put this plan together, a plan for which the word “cockamamie” might have been invented, assuming that word ever was invented.

Here’s MacIntyre’s character study of coroner and co-conspirator Bentley Purchase ~

“He found death not only fascinating but extremely funny. No form of violent mortality surprised or upset him. ‘A depressing job?’ he once said. ‘Far from it. I can’t imagine it getting me down.’ He would offer slightly damp chocolates to guests in his private chambers, and joke: ‘They were found in Auntie’s bag when she was fished out of the Round Pond at Hampstead last night.’ A farmer by birth, Purchase was ‘rugged in appearance and character’ with ‘an impish sense of humour’ and a finely calibrated sense of the ridiculous: he loved Gilbert and Sullivan operas, toy trains, boiled eggs, and the model piggery he ran near Ipswich.”

Tragically, Purchase doesn’t appear in Neame’s film (scripted by ace novelist Nigel Balchin of THE SMALL BACK ROOM fame), but my old friend Sir Bernard Spilsbury does, embodied by the ever-impressive Andre Morell. Who better than a former BBC Quatermass to play this august pathologist?

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The first half of the film IS a little dull — it’s a procedural in which none of the details are surprising once we get over the macabre plot, with only some nifty comic timing from Laurence Naismith to liven it up. The scenario allows the inclusion of a couple of American actors — a very shiny Gloria Grahame is allowed since, after all, there must have been some Americans in London in 1943, and Clifton Webb can play an English officer because, after all, he’s snooty and gay which is almost as good as being English. The man he’s playing, Ewen Montagu, was brother of Hitchcock producer and Soviet spy Ivor Montagu.

Churchill goes unseen, like Celeste Holm in A LETTER TO THREE WIVES or Jesus in BEN-HUR, but Peter Sellers does the voice, with perhaps a little too much comic glee.

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Then Stephen Boyd enters as an Irish Nazi spy, sent to ascertain if the fictitious character invented for the corpse was ever real. Now some actual jeopardy is injected, since Boyd might upset the whole plan and also, HE’S in danger of being caught and hanged. And even if he is a Nazi spy, he’s a Personable Movie Star and we’re spending time with him so naturally we become implicated in his mission. Boyd is really good here, avoiding any show of overt villainy and just playing a rather exciting fellow doing a job. His charisma is at its peak. Fiona was impressed by the amount of detail in his bumpy forehead. “There’s a lot going on there. He’s like a Klingon!”

The only trouble is, he’s entirely fictitious. We had broken the Nazi codes by this point and had captured, executed or turned every single spy they had in Britain. I must say, though, he’s an admirable invention — he keeps the whole thing afloat, if you’ll pardon the expression. Boyd, and cameos like Naismith and Miles Malleson (“He won’t be doing the crossword tonight”) make the sedate Cinemascope entertainment just watchable enough. And then there’s the haunting bit of poetry at the graveside and it all goes very eerie and moving — out of left field, emotion enters the film, like a phantom, and sweeps through it, swinging the door shut as it goes.

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“Last night I dreamed a deadly dream, beyond the Isle of Sky, I saw a dead man win a fight, and I think that man was I.”

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11 Responses to “The Big Dead One”

  1. There’s an “e” on Anne!

  2. And now there is! Sorry it took a while to show up.

  3. I interview Mr. Neame (and other L.A. -based Brits HERE

    He was a very affable chap.

  4. He always struck me that way. And that’s a lovely article.

  5. Don’t forget the thrill of seeing the stuffy Robert Flemyng helping do strange things to a corpse years before THE HORRIBLE DR, HICHCOCK — in a suitably white-tiled morgue. And someone needs to expalin Gloria Grahame’s shiny, greasy-looking face — at least on the Fox DVD.

  6. Fiona speculated that GG’s oily sheen was some kind of attempt to look younger, but if so it’s distracting and unsuccessful. She also seems botoxed, her face doesn’t move at all except her mouth, but that would be anachronistic. I don’t think it can be a flaw in the DVD, everyone else looks great.

    Flemyng’s character is fictional but his real-life equivalent had a spectacular moustache and a passion for rodents.

  7. Fiona here – THIS from wikipedia. ‘ In the mid-1940s, Grahame began undergoing small cosmetic procedures on her lips and face. According to her niece, Vicky Mitchum, Grahame’s obsession with her looks led her to undergo more cosmetic procedures that rendered her upper lip largely immobile because of nerve damage. Mitchum said, “Over the years, she [Grahame] carved herself up, trying to make herself into an image of beauty she felt should exist but didn’t. Others saw her as a beautiful person but she never did, and crazy things spread from that.”[6]’

  8. I think Gloria Graham suffered serious scalding around 1953, when Lee Marvin threw hot coffee in her face.

  9. chris schneider Says:

    The one thing that I remember about this film involves — how could it not? — my beloved GG. Namely, her dictating the letter to be found in the pocket of the corpse, the letter containing her own emotions. What the French would, I believe, call a “scene a faire.”

  10. All made up, but very effective. The real love letter was written by a ferocious spinster lady at the office.

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