About a month ago, I finally caught up with Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and found myself completely underwhelmed, disappointingly so. I wondered just how I’d gotten to the crossroads of dissolution and unfulfilled expectations with this filmmaker, and how Anderson himself seemed to go from full of possibilities (Bottle Rocket) to the fulfilling of a major new voice (Rushmore), to exciting talent treading water (The Royal Tenenbaums), to filmmaker of listless indulgences, stylistic recycling and meandering storytelling (The Life Aquatic) in just four films. The depths of my disappointment were great enough that I felt I had to write about the film, and fully intended to do so immediately after seeing it. But life, as it will, has intervened since then, frequently enough to bring me other subjects to write about, as well as babies to cook, dinner to bounce on my knee and everyday chores to ignore until they can be ignored no longer. Enough time has passed, in fact, that I feel like in order to do justice to my own responses, and the experience of the film, I should see it again. The DVD is scheduled to be released on May 10, and I will make this solemn vow, right here in front of God, Sergio Leone and everyone else, that will write, and extensively, about the films of Wes Anderson, and specifically The Life Aquatic, concurrent with that DVD release.
Round about the same time that I saw The Life Aquatic, I saw another film that couldn’t have been more stylistically and temperamentally unrelated to Anderson’s film—Ronald Neame’s 1956 drama of World War II intrigue called The Man Who Never Was. In it, British forces attempt to fool the Germans into expecting an invasion of Greece, thus drawing troops away from Churchill’s actual target—Sicily— by planting letters and other indicators of the false move on the body of a dead aviator left floating off the coast of Spain, expecting that the body will be intercepted by German intelligence and the “plan” discovered. The movie follows the idea from its conception by two British naval officers (Clifton Webb and Robert Flemyng), through the procurement of an appropriate and usable body, to the amassing of details to be planted on that body that will lead the Germans into accepting the corpse as that of a British officer killed in a plane crash while on his way to deliver correspondence related to the false invasion.
Gloria Grahame, one of my all-time favorite actresses, also stars as an American librarian whose doomed romance with a British flyer provides the text of a love letter that is planted on the body, a letter on which the success of the deception will ultimately hinge. The blowsy Grahame, whose eyes look perpetually puffy from weeping, even when she’s happy, is flat-out brilliant in the scene in which she dictates the letter’s text to her roommate (Josephine Griffin), an assistant to Webb who has no idea that the impassioned romantic yearning Grahame details for her transcription is based on anything other than the librarian’s abilities as a writer to empathize with the anguished straits of a fictional character. And Clifton Webb’s double-starched, non-nonsense British officer, the kind of character, and performance, that fueled the imaginations of the Monty Python troupe to the satiric stratosphere, mirrors the movie’s straight-ahead, clean-cut storytelling and lends it exactly the right measure of gravity, as well as fueling a surprising willingness to confront the assumptions of British imperialism. At one point Webb must speak to the father of the boy whose body will be used in the scheme and offer his assurances of respect toward the young man. He also offers, by means of condolence, the suggestion that the boy would have been proud to do his part for England in this way, and the boy’s father, immersed in mourning, comes up short: “My son is a Scot, sir. You British always say ‘England’ when you mean ‘Britain.’ But we’re used to it.” Webb’s officer can offer no defense, yet the movie doesn’t use this moment as ammunition against the Empire so much as an observation of the political and geographical differences that some might assume were effectively papered over in time of war.
The movie generates a considerable amount of suspense in the concoction of the plan, its execution, and most especially in its last half, when a Nazi spy (Stephen Boyd) comes to London to investigate the veracity of the evidence found about the dead officer’s existence, an assignment which eventually leads him to Griffin and Grahame’s doorstep. In fact, it’s a bit surprising how involving it all is, and that's a testimony to the effectiveness of its deliberate pace and refusal of any kind of stylistic ostentation—there might not be 250 cuts in the entire movie, and the cinematography, by Oswald Morris, is appropriately unfussy and, at times, beautiful.
I was fascinated at just how much more I found myself preferring the relatively stodgy, stiff-upper-lip craftsmanship of The Man Who Never Was to Anderson’s loose, yet somehow programmatic and self-conscious hipster distractions. Part of that, I suppose, can be laid at the feet of creeping age and my preference, of late, for the elemental classicism of British and American filmmaking of the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. But it’s also receptiveness to a style and sensibility that is diametrically opposed to the kind of sloppy hijinks that pass as personal filmmaking, not to mention generational statements, in films like The Life Aquatic. It’s just part of what I want to more fully engage when Anderson’s movie is released on DVD on May 10. Sometime around that same time (I don’t know specifically when as yet), there will be a DVD release of The Man Who Never Was. I intend to revisit that film as well, enthusiastically, and I would encourage everyone to do the same.