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Blu-ray Review

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I Was Monty's Double (1958)


Starring: M. E. Clifton James, John Mills and Cecil Parker
Distributor: StudioCanal


Certificate: U
Release Date: 10 June 2019

Sun Tzu, authoring the penultimate meditation on military philosophy, The Art of War, in the legendary era (maybe or maybe not) of King David and King Solomon, (also, who maybe or maybe not existed) before Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Constantine, Genghis Khan, George Washington, Napoleon Bonaparte, Shaka Zulu, Robert E. Lee and Geronimo (all, more than maybe existed) has been appropriated, consciously or unconsciously, by many warrior intellects. Mao, Giáp and sundry ‘secret teamers’ in the C.I.A. (see L. Fletcher Prouty if you don’t believe me) embraced The Art of War as their bedside battlefield bible.

But no more effective use can be claimed than by Churchill and his inner circle in dealing with the superior military force of Hitler’s Third Reich in World War Two. Founding his thinking on Confucian principles, he prized stratagems of alliances, willingness to delay at least temporarily, in face of a superior enemy and most importantly, use of spies and deception.

This was the bedrock of Churchill’s best thinking as delineated in the classic Bodyguard of Lies by Anthony Cave Brown and nowhere better exemplified than in the lead-up to D-Day, by recruiting a minor actor to impersonate Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. If Monty was kicking up sand in North Africa, he couldn’t be in England planning any worthwhile invasion of France, right?

As Churchill quipped to Stalin, whilst swirling the brandy round his ever present balloon glass, ‘The truth, she is so valuable we must protect her with a bodyguard of lies.’ Stalin, who rarely broke his stolid composure, had to smile at this wisdom. Probably, from where he was sitting on a golden throne in the heavenlies, Sun Tzu did too and murmured, ‘Well spoken, O foolish occidental greenhorn.’

I Was Monty’s Double is a John Mills tour de force. He plays Major Harvey, intel officer on leave who, after tracking down in a music hall his current amorous predilection from the secretarial pool, finds she is engaged to a real snout of an officer (Julian Glover, who else?). Leaving the music hall in defeat, Harvey is struck by stage actor M. E. Clifton James’s novelty appearance as Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. James is such a close double the whole audience stands at attention in rousing respect.

Back at intel, Harvey and his superior, Col. Logan (Cecil Parker) burrow into a vexing challenge high command has whispered down the chute. Hitler knows a land invasion of Europe is imminent, Helen Keller could sense it from the grouping of men and equipment. But where? Norway? Calais? The French coast? Or that soft Mediterranean underbelly, so famously (and ill-advisedly) championed by the Prime Minister himself?

It was going to be Normandy. Eisenhower and his team had won that case but how to deceive the German military geniuses into believing it was going to be somewhere else? Their thinking was known (unbeknownst to them) by virtue of their cracked super code (ENIGMA), the most secret of WW II secrets, giving Ike and his team the Sun Tzu high ground: knowing the thoughts of their enemy. But how to keep the madman in the eagle’s nest convinced it would be somewhere else? Deception. What if Field Marshal Monty was seen in North Africa? That could do it. Crazy as it seemed, that could do it.

The recruitment of Clifton James, coaching a second rate actor to play the sharpest British sword of the century, is the nugget here. A coup was to cast the real life James to play himself playing Monty. It is nothing but enjoyable to watch veteran cast mates Mills, Parker and Barbara Hicks prepping the insecure actor for the biggest role of his life. The banter between Parker and Mills is brilliant and inspired, screenwriter Bryan Forbes excelling himself. Which is saying a lot. A word here is due for Hicks. She is Hester the office secretary who Mills is never hot to date. She of the long face and eyes which seem not to want to line up. If this picture does nothing more for you it will garner abject respect for the talent of Barbara Hicks. She is a full instrumentalist actor, continually surprising, contributing and delivering more laughs than were already there. I am now a Barbara Hicks fan for life and you should be too.

James/Monty is flown to Gibraltar, paraded about for German agents to watch (Marius Goring is the seamless top gun for the Nazis) and report back to Berlin. Hitler buys it, Logan gleefully announces to Harvey. The penetrated code work of Bletchley, which was still mostly a secret back in 1958, verifies this. Hester pulls out her secret bottle of vodka for the celebration.

Director John Guillermin (Death on the Nile, 1978; The Towering Inferno, 1974) helms with such a sure hand we think all this patter is just happening. Such is the surety of art here. There were worries about the title. It was changed to Hell, Heaven or Hoboken no doubt to tell American audiences this picture had humour. I find this understandable but sad.

The StudioCanal restoration almost cures the disparity between stock footage, newsreels and military footage from the day. Something I’ve noted elsewhere is a new and unheralded dividend of the digital 16bit scans. In the old days, stock footage inserts were always jarring and just had to be forgiven. Low rank cinephiles could feel smart pointing it out. Masters of the obvious.

German spies are so convinced by the counterfeit Monty’s appearance in North Africa a plot is hatched to send commandos ashore and kidnap him. This is fiction but rounds out the movie with a business like action finale. Col. Harvey realizes what’s happening and drafts a young lieutenant to help him rush to the rescue. The lieutenant rising to the call is played by Bryan Forbes which is another wink at ironic casting. The real M. E. Clifton James played by M. E. Clifton James is rescued by the screenwriter (The Cockleshell Heroes, 1955) in a brisk action cameo. If Hitchcock had been nearby one wonders if they’d have asked him to play Alfred Hitchcock.

The no-frills black and white cinematography by veteran Basil Emmott (some readers here will perhaps remark to themselves, oh, this is the artistic lens man responsible for Curse of the Fly, 1965) always serves the purpose with standard framing and judicious camera movement. His job is to platform performance and he does it well.

The extras thoughtfully provided by StudioCanal include newsreels and promotional footage from the time but the best item is an interview with film scholar Terry Crowdy, author of the book Deceiving Hitler. His youth underscores the perennial interest in the true art of war: mis- and dis- information, data control. Pertinent forever and today.


John Huff

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