I watched the film version of Ewen Montagu's book last night. Both tell the story of a fascinating -- and slightly gruesome -- intelligence effort during WW II that used a corpse clad as a British officer, planted to wash ashore in Spain to convincingly plant false information about where the Allied forces were headed after taking North Africa.
This is trickier than it might seem, since the ruse is an old one and any gap in the dead man's background will give it away; you can't just leave a dead Lieutenant with a folder of fake invasion plans marked "Most Secret" in enemy or friendly-neutral territory without raising suspicion. How Montagu and a very small group did so, how they made it convincing, and the wider effect -- German intelligence never again trusted similarly-found information, including at least two potentially disastrous gaffes -- makes for a fascinating book and an engrossing movie.
66-year-old Clifton Webb plays the 42-year-old Montagu (who makes a cameo appearance as someone else) with ease, suggesting relative youth with nothing more than hair dye and movement; his mid-Atlantic accent, barely punched up, is as close to that of an upper-class Briton as any American can manage without sounding affected. In three different films, I've seen him play three very different characters and he drops right into them -- this is a guy who was very good at his trade, so good you saw the character, not the actor.
Not the deepest of films if you were after subtext and subtle anguish but well-researched, with good sets and a talented cast. There is a slightly silly spy-movie digression in the later part covering confirmation of successful deception, for reasons of security: in 1955, the ULTRA decrypts actually used to confirm the operation's success were still classified. Montagu's book does not hint at them, instead showing documents captured after the war and implying the Allies proceeded on little more than hope. In fact, they were all but reading Hitler's mail and were certain Axis forces had been diverted. With the truth behind a wall of secrecy and Montagu's version impossible to present with any drama, the film takes a different course, borrowing the tone and wording of the recovered documents.
This film, despite a distinct lack of battle scenes and overt derring-do* (there is a sort of a car chase, for the fidgety), nonetheless tells an excellent story of modern war, and would be well-paired with Patton. As for the book, it ought to be sat right next to Gen. Patton's War As I Knew It, as a reminder that every great success requires foundation-stones.
* As the daring might, in fact, do.
6 months ago