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"Man In The Middle" (1964) is arguably Mitchum's best performance (certainly his most nuanced) and one of those situations where you can't imagine anyone else in the role. Although the focus is a "military" court martial in India during the last months of WWII, it is basically a standard courtroom drama with Mitchum's character playing the defense counsel. The actual proceeding is very similar to that shown in "The Caine Mutiny" (1954). With a running length of just 93 minutes and a relatively complex story to tell, Director Guy Hamilton had to utilize a lot of stereotypes and nonverbal clues from Mitchum to assemble a coherent film. He is largely successful although it appears a lot of the romantic side story (between Mitchum and "South Pacific's France Nuyen) was trimmed before release. That is of little importance to the theme, what was left works mainly as a way to go out on Mitchum's closing line "you might not be able to beat them but you don't have to join them".
Out of combat, recovering from his wound, a limping career Army lieutenant colonel with a law degree and limited legal experience finds himself assigned to defend an American officer (Lt. Winston-played by Keenan Wynn) who has already confessed to the murder of a British Staff Sergeant. In fact, the film opens with the murder so the viewer is never in doubt about the "who done it" issue. All that remains is the punishment phase of the proceeding. Winston's brother-in-law is a congressman who has rejected several other potential defense counsels but has agreed to Mitchum's appointment. The area commander (nicely played by Barry Sullivan) wants the proceeding expedited ASAP with a death sentence, the best way to satisfy the British so everyone can go back to pulling together. He is a friend of Mitchum's family and is confident that Mitchum will take one for the team and do what is best for the war effort.
And at first Mitchum seems quite agreeable to the idea of providing no more than a token defense; pointing out to the two hot shot attorneys on his defense team that in a few months they will be back practicing law as civilians while he has found a home in the Army and does not want this to louse up his career. He has only been given a few days to assemble his case anyway.
But as he reviews the circumstances and interviews a few people he becomes convinced that his client is a psychological basket case who was unable to determine right from wrong at the time of the murder. There is no time for the film to explore the origins of Lt. Winstons's mental condition and no time to give any dimensionality to his character. Nor is it actually of any real relevance to the story Director Guy Hamilton is trying to tell, so Winston is simplistically portrayed as a totally unsympathetic character. Unlike in "A Few Good Men" (1992), it is intended that the viewer conclude that just going through the motions would really be in the best interests of everyone except the defendant.
Mitchum is on the screen 90% of the time and is the only character that undergoes any real change during the course of the film. And Mitchum must underplay the change process because the idea is to show that if the Army had not tried to hinder his efforts, he would never have put so much energy into the defense. It is a great nonverbal performance as Mitchum slowly gets his back up about what is happening and decides that personal integrity trumps career aspirations. Somewhat cliché and with the score more appropriate to an overwrought melodrama, it is a nice illustration of the condensed storytelling process of films.
Then again, what do I know? I'm only a child.
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