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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Thursday, June 13, 2024

Chazen to show battle-tested flick on Sunday

Is it sad that asking for a film to be fun AND intelligent is usually hand-waved with an unsatisfactory “Well, most people just won’t get it, so why bother”? I think it’s a tragedy. I like films to be intelligent. I like ideas and consequences that make me think. I’m weird like that.

It’s harder and harder to find truly intelligent films these days. The media market is sunk in such a sulfurous mire of crude, cheap, pandering nonsense that sometimes it’s hard to distinguish what is genuinely brilliant from the miasma engulfing it. Thank Vint Cerf, then, for the Internet, where delving into the vast accomplishments of past masters is only a few clicks (and maybe one or two questionably legal websites) away.

Past filmmakers had less to work with and were in the infantile stages of their craft, usually having to make stuff up as they went along when the tech or the composition didn’t exist. Not everything was perfect, and certainly not everything was even competent. But for what little they had to rely on in terms of spectacle, they knew they had to make up for it with actual depth and quality of content.

To disentangle this quibbling mess of thoughts, I went and watched “The Man Who Never Was” this weekend, a British World War II espionage film made in 1956. The setting is England, almost exclusively, and concerns two British commanders executing a plan to trick Nazi intelligence with false battle plans, using nothing more than a dead body and an expertly crafted lie.

Let’s get one thing straight: This is not a war film. I hesitate to even call it an espionage film, but it has the general trappings of one. It’s much more a case study of the people who actually handled the plan and the challenges they faced. The filmmakers have certainly shown their work, although they probably cheated quite a bit; the film is based off of real-life Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu’s account of the events.

The script crackles with an electric, snarky energy, delivered inimitably by Clifton Webb (who portrays Montagu) and his co-actors. Webb in particular leaves a powerful, lasting impression. The film balances a very clinical attitude toward the horrors of war alongside very human moments of love, loss and the enormity of the main cast’s undertaking. Hearing German shells rain upon London in the night, watching the stony-faced silence of military men as the screams of the frightened and dying echo through the cold streets—poignant doesn’t even begin to do it justice.

I may start to sound like an old parrot (for those three of you who read my review of “Prisoners”), but where “The Man Who Never Was” shines is in its characters. I love how the film respects the intelligence of its viewers by asking them to follow these men and women through their lives without exposing who they are and why their struggles matter. The movie assumes it should all be bloody obvious. There’s a war on, and a lot of people are going to die.

I mentioned Clifton Webb earlier, and I’ll mention him again now because he certainly deserves it. As precise, stoic and calculating as Montagu is, we still get a sense of the frayed nerves beneath his elegantly trimmed beard. He’s a human, just like the rest of us, but he’s cunning and damn intelligent. It was his plan, after all. It’s a genuine cerebral competency that you very rarely get from military characters in most media.

And special mention must be made to Gloria Grahame as a librarian named Lucy, caught in a relationship with a Royal Air Force soldier and dreadfully aware of the consequences she faces in accepting his engagement ring. Grahame walks through the film as though she is in a dream, or perhaps desperately wants to be, and she feels just so small and sad and lonely. Her final scene is desperate and heart-wrenching, and definitely not something for new, happy couples to watch on a date.

I don’t often tolerate war-related media, unless it leans toward deconstruction (a la “Saving Private Ryan”) or the bleakness of the consequences (“Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Schindler’s List,” “Fallout”). “The Man Who Never Was” is something along those lines. Something that truly respects the story it tells. It reminds me a bit of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” without all the needless complexity and awkward structure. It’s a film that is truly intelligent without limiting its audience, thanks to a marvelous cast and screenplay. Even if war movies aren’t your thing, I highly recommend seeing this one at the Chazen Museum this Sunday, Oct. 6, at 2 p.m.

Grade: A

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