I Was Monty’s Double (1958) 3.14/5 (1)


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Rating: The Good – 74
Genre: War
Duration: 101 mins
Director: John Guillermin
Stars: M.E. Clifton James, John Mills, Cecil Parker

I Was Monty’s Double or “Hell, Heaven or Hoboken” is a-one-of-a-kind WWII movie based on an amazing real life operation and starring the man who was at the very centre it. It’s based on M.E. Clifton James’ own account of how he, as an enlisted stage actor with a remarkable likeness for General Montgomery, was co-opted by intelligence to impersonate the general in North Africa in order to fool the Germans into thinking the 1944 invasion might launch from there. It’s a riveting premise for a movie made more so by the convenient fact that it was James’ acting background that made him fit for the part in real life and so doubly (excuse the pun) fit for the movie role. Moreover, James and Montgomery were outright doppelgängers and when the former is introduced on screen for the first time, everybody should look up a picture of old Monty to get a first hand appreciation. The story gets even more bizarre in that the officer responsible for recruiting James in real life was David Niven (then serving as a Lieutenant Colonel in the army’s film unit). However, writer Bryan Forbes rightly replaced him with an intelligence operative played by John Mills presumably to give the whole operation a more contained and dramatic tone.

Mills and James establish a splendid chemistry from early on as Mills’ Major Harvey sets about transforming the timid actor into the battle hardened taskmaster. This part of the film is full of humour with James being put through the paces as he keeps up with the actual Monty’s (played also by himself!) rigorous schedule and scrutinises the man and his habits up close. When they put the show on the road so to speak, the film takes a turn for the thrilling as James’ impersonation faces several tricky tests some expected and some not. James is outstanding in the role of both himself, Monty’s double, and Monty himself and captures the transition brilliantly when needed and disguises it completely when not (i.e., when he’s supposed to be the actual Monty). The insecurity of the man in his moments of doubt (even prior to his recruitment while working in the pay corpse) is endearing and his ability to turn that insecurity on its head when in character is most satisfying. Mills offers much personality to the movie whether he’s sharing the screen with James or his own on-screen superior played well by Cecil Parker.

Forbes takes some liberties with actual events towards the end of his screenplay but it plays wonderfully with the rest of the film and gives director John Guillermin a chance to present us with an excellently constructed action sequence shot with all the tension and exquisite pacing of the best war movie sequences. Some might find John Addison’s jaunty score a little twee and it perhaps could’ve been replaced by something with a more serious tone but for the most part, it’s unnoticeable or at least ignorable. The sound production hasn’t really stood the test of time either and it can often be difficult to pick up on what’s been said. A restoration would be most welcome for this reason alone. Despite some issues, I Was Monty’s Double counts as a refreshing and thoroughly enjoyable film built around an intriguing turn from James. In fact, in all of cinema, there’s arguably never been a more reflexive nor historically relevant performance and if that’s not a reason to see a film, what is?

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