Monday, September 21, 2020

Tony Curtis as The Great Impostor

Young Ferdinand Demara, Jr. isn't one to take "no" for an answer, even after well-intentioned Father Devlin (Karl Malden) explains that sometimes you just have to accept your limitations.

Years later, Demara  (Tony Curtis) encounters a major career obstacle when his application for Officer Candidate School is rejected by the Army because he lacks a high school diploma. After mulling over the situation, he forges college transcripts and is accepted as an officer by the Marines. That plan goes quickly awry, though, when he learns he must undergo a security check by the F.B.I.

Tony Curtis and Raymond Massey.
Demara promptly fakes his suicide and embarks on a career of creating false identities. He spends time as a Trappist monk, a deputy prison warden, a military ship's physician, and a teacher. His ability to learn quickly serves him well--especially when performing surgical operations after reading a few pages of Gray's Anatomy! Not all goes according to plan since he's captured by the Army and spends 18 months in prison. But he even turns that into a positive and later becomes a leader for prison reform in a maximum security facility.

Incredibly, The Great Impostor is based on the life the Ferdinand Waldo Demara, Jr. While some of the film is fictitious, the real Demara did pose as a monk, assistant prison warden, naval surgeon, and teacher. His life was the subject of the biography The Great Impostor, written by Robert Crichton.

Tony Curtis with Sue Ane Langdon.
If you're looking for insight into Demara's extraordinary life, you won't find it in The Great Impostor. The lead character's rationale is he's doing these fantastic things because he can--and because the thrill of potential capture is exciting. It doesn't help that the film has been shaped as a breezy Tony Curtis vehicle for the most part. One almost expects a cheerful Curtis to break the fourth wall and start talking to the audience long before he smiles at us in the final shot.

There are couple of serious segments, such as when Demara tries to reach a hardened convict and later performs emergency surgeries on 18 Korean combat casualties. In these scenes, it becomes apparent that Demara wants to do good--even if his actions put innocent people at life-threatening risks. (Imagine being operated on by a man with no medical experience whatsoever!)

Tony Curtis's fans are sure to enjoy The Great Impostor. Coming off the most impressive stretch of his career (1957-60), the actor seems to be having fun and lays on the charm. He is surrounded by a bunch of veteran actors (Edmond O'Brien, Raymond Massey, Arthur O'Connell) and attractive co-stars (Joan Blackman and Sue Ane Langdon, who steals all her scenes). However, in the end, it's just a shame that Tony didn't get the opportunity to play Demara in a more serious film, something along the lines of Steven Spielberg's more compelling Catch Me If You Can (2002).


  1. I haven't seen this in years. The idea of Demara fascinated my father so we would catch this movie whenever it was aired.

  2. I saw The Great Impostor on late-night TV, not long after having read Robert Crichton's book, which had come out in paperback about a year before.
    Actually, this was a reissue, combining the original book with a followup that Crichton had written a couple of years afterward, in which he recounted meeting Demara, and taking an extended road trip with him to research his story.
    The Rascal And The Road kind of disappeared upon publication; the paperback combo with the first book came about after Crichton had a bestseller with The Secret Of Santa Vittoria (but that's another story ...).
    Watching the movie, I noted that while it generally stuck to Crichton's book, there were some continuity tweaks, usually involving the sequence of events (Demara was a Canadian Navy surgeon before he was a Texas prison warden, among other things).
    There was also the matter of casting: the real Fred Demara looked nothing like Tony Curtis.
    If you'd like to see the real Demara, check out The Hypnotic Eye, a chiller flick starring Jacques Bergerac from '58.
    Fred Demara has a brief supporting part as a doctor who treats a victim of acid burns (you can't miss him; he's a fat guy with a crewcut and a major Boston accent(" Wait for the paraffin to haahden.")).
    Hey, it's the movies ...

    1. Thanks for the additional interesting info, Mike!

  3. Leawo Video downloader could help you download and enjoy the good film:

  4. Aaaah.... brings back memories of seeing this film after school on "Million Dollar Movie" on WOR-TV Ch.9.. TCM should pick up the mantle

  5. Demara's life certainly sounds similar to Frank Abignale's, whose memoirs are fascinating - as is the film, as you pointed out. I'd not heard of the Demara movie or the biography, but I'm looking forward to both, if I can find 'em.

  6. I really hate to be a nitpicker, but I'm just back from a quick search of your archives:

    With an O, not a U.

    I know that it shouldn't drive me up a wall, but it always has.

    Sorry about that ..

    1. Thanks, Mike. Whew, I think I fixed them all!