Archive for Ben MacIntyre

The Big Dead One

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 20, 2015 by dcairns

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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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Triple (or Quadruple?) Agent

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 29, 2013 by dcairns

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Just finished reading Agent Zigzag by Ben MacIntyre, the true story of Eddie Chapman, a career criminal who enjoyed an astonishing second career during WWII. He was in prison on the island of Jersey when it was conquered by the Nazis, and offered his services to the Abwehr, the German secret service. Parachuted into Britain as a spy, he immediately surrendered himself to the Brits and offered to spy on his spymasters back in the Third Reich. MI5 were able to make him look like a successful intelligence agent and saboteur, before sending him back to collect data from the Germans while pretending to give them data. The Germans then returned Chapman to the UK for further espionage work, during which he fed them misinformation which may have diverted German rockets from central London and caused U-boats to sail nearer the surface to avoid imaginary depth charges with “proximity fuses.” Staying nearer the surface, the U-boats could of course be more easily destroyed by the British navy.

I have a keen, though non-practicing, interest in espionage, so this was catnip to me. But Chapman’s story also has numerous cinematic connections, as it turns out. In London before the war, Chapman was a member of a notorious “jelly gang,” which sounds like something I’d have wanted to be part of when I was seven. If you’d told me that jelly in this case was high explosives (gelignite) I’d have been even more keen. Splashing about his ill-earned income, Chapman mingled with high-steppers such as Noel Coward and future James Bond director Terence Young. Better still, when British intelligence were considering employing Chapman, they invited Young, now an intelligence officer in the Home Forces, to assess him. “One could give him the most difficult of missions,” estimated Young, “knowing that he would carry it out and that he would never betray the official who sent him, but that it was highly probable he would, incidentally, rob the official who sent him out … He would then carry out his [mission] and return to the official whom he had robbed to report.”

Chapman’s U-boat deception op may have also involved another British intelligence officer, Ian Fleming. Poetically, this certainly ought to be true.

Post-war, Chapman returned to thievery and conspiring to defeat the ends of justice, whereas Young directed DR. NO and FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, patterning Sean Connery’s appearance and manner upon his own, down to the square handkerchief in the jacket pocket (a look distinct from the more conventional protruding triangle).

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Later still, Young directed TRIPLE CROSS, a hughly fictionalized account of Chapman’s WWII adventures, with Christopher Plummer as the spiv-turned-spy.

Meanwhile, Anthony Faramus who had been jailed in Jersey along with Chapman, and volunteered to spy alongside him, has his own cinematic side. The Germans saw no use for the rather frail Faramus, and shipped him to Buchenwald and then Mauthausen. Against all the odds, he survived, though he lost a lung and seven ribs. After the war he became a film extra and appears as a POW in THE COLDITZ STORY. Then he traveled to Hollywood… and became Clark Gable’s butler.

There’s more, much more, in MacIntyre’s cracking book — I particularly like the stuff about Jasper Maskelyne, stage magician and secret agent, an expert at disguising things from the air to deceive German planes…

Agent Zigzag: The True Wartime Story of Eddie Chapman: The Most Notorious Double Agent of World War II