The moody, sulky Stanley Baker proves a difficult lead in The Man Who Finally Died; something in his hard-edged looks always made him an easier anti-hero than a homely, pleasant, easy-to-like traditional hero of typical British films. That being said, his working-class background and demeanour lent everything he did a certain gravitas and reality. When I was growing up, I somehow always got him mixed up with Australian actor Rod Taylor (for years I used to get confused regards who starred in films like The Time Machine, Zulu and The Birds), even though Taylor was a much more affable, personable actor compared to the much more intense Baker, whose characters always seemed haunted by dark moods.
This is the case with his lead role in The Man Who Finally Died, something of a disguised spy thriller in which he plays Joe Newman, summoned to Bavaria by a mysterious phone call telling him that his father Kurtz Deutsch, who he hadn’t seen since when a child before the war, is still alive. Joe had believed his father dead, killed during action in the war but he is told that he was captured by the Russians and was a prisoner of war, only recently managing to flee across the Iron Curtain. Unfortunately when Joe arrives in town and checks into his hotel, a funeral cortege going by is revealed to be that of his father.
What follows is a mysterious thriller in which Joe, unconvinced that the man who purportedly just died was indeed his father, digs into recent events and becomes increasingly confident that a conspiracy is going on. He is followed by shadowy characters, is not convinced by the stories told him by his fathers widow, Lisa (Mai Zettering) or friend/carer Doctor Peter von Brecht (Peter Cushing) who seem shifty and vague, and who he comes to believe have ulterior motives.
Initially I thought Bakers’ casting was a problem for the film- his surly, moody and antagonistic personality had me accepting the locals general belief that Joe was being difficult and unreasonable in opposition of the accepted facts, but in hindsight I think Baker was brilliant. I came to believe that being raised by his single mother back in England and his mixture of guilt and anger regards not really knowing his father was why he seemed such a troubled, antisocial character. It made him difficult to root for or like as a hero, but easy to accept as a maladjusted individual so easily suspicious of those around him. He also was fairly distinct as a stranger in a strange land. So in hindsight, I think Baker was very impressive and a repeat viewing of this film might be more than worthwhile.
The Man Who Finally Died was directed by Quentin Lawrence, and its quite by accident that my recent watching of old movies has recently included his The Trollenberg Terror (1958) and awhile ago the quite brilliant Cash on Demand (1961). Lawrence seems to have had a very limited film career, mostly working in television, and its perhaps little accident that both The Man Who Finally Died and Cash On Demand were based on earlier TV productions. This is a finely-directed piece, the telegraphing of some character and plot points finely judged- its a good piece of directorial work.
I’ve read that The Man Who Finally Died was possibly the wrong film at the wrong time, with such spy thrillers proving old-fashioned with James Bond breaking the mould with its violent, sexy spy capers with gadgets and colourful locales. The Man Who Finally Died is at heart a very insular, rather intellectual piece but it does have a genuinely surprising twist that I only guessed just before its reveal. The casting of Peter Cushing is great- one of my favourite actors, I always enjoy the particular pleasure of watching him in something I haven’t seen before (and indeed, this year I have had that pleasure quite often). His casting here benefits the film. Whatever the wild accusations of Joe, its impossible for a viewer not to be suspicious of the guy who played Frankenstein playing an apparently well-meaning, friendly doctor, and so its great when these suspicions are then usurped, pulling the rug from under the audience expectations.