Carol Reed’s 1959 Our Man in Havana makes its home video debut on Sony’s mixed-up “Martini Movies” imprint. The loosely connected group of titles have little (if anything) in common and Sony promotes them as a mix of camp, cool and nostalgia. And while that’s a somewhat misleading portrait of Our Man in Havana, a satire of international cold war espionage in the hot zone of Batista’s Cuba, it’s not completely off base.
The film was the third and final collaboration between director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene and, although it’s a minor work compared to The Fallen Idol and The Third Man, it is a witty and entertaining film, a spy movie lite with dark corners and a great cast, led by Alec Guinness as a chagrined British vacuum cleaner salesman in Havana who is reluctantly drafted by the British Secret Service and fulfills his obligations by churning out fictitious reports and phantom agents, all of whom draw salaries that flow through Guinness and right into his bank account (which is immediately spent by his spoiled spendthrift daughter). Burl Ives is as an apolitical doctor caught in the middle of the shenanigans, Ernie Kovacs is perfectly sleazy as a corrupt Cuban officer with eyes for Guinness’ daughter, Noel Coward and Ralph Richardson are British intelligence officers and Maureen O’Hara is the secretary that they send to help Guinness manage his growing (and entirely fictional) stable of informants and agents. The tone is inconsistent but the atmosphere is marvelous. Reed shot on location in Havana and fills the film with scenes in the streets and bars and exclusive retreats of the very wealthy. And while he doesn’t comment on the politics of Cuba, the corruption and totalitarian power of the government and its police are suggested in comments tossed off in the course of banter.
Stephen Frears’ directorial debut Gumshoe, a cockeyed detective film starring Albert Finney as a small-time bingo caller who plays at being a private detective for fun and ends up in the middle of a real mystery, and Arch Oboler’s 1951 end-of-the-world drama Five, a low budget, high concept film he produced independently, also arrive under the “Martini Movies” imprint. The black and white widescreen Our Man in Havana looks terrific and the color Gumshoe is fine (the colors have a drained look to them appropriate to its dispiriting Liverpool location). Five is less than stellar, but the grit and imperfection in the image that appear to be right in the master materials. The only supplements to speak of are the original trailers. The “Martini Minutes” featurettes are nothing more than tongue-in-cheek self-promotions. I dig deeper into the films in my weekly DVD column at Parallax View.
It’s a good week for Alec Guinness. Lionsgate releases the Alec Guinness 5-Film Collection, their repackaging of a comedy collection released by Anchor Bay a few years earlier. Four the films are Ealing Studio classics. In Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) he pulls the kind of stunt Jerry Lewis and Peter Sellers would later make famous: he plays no less than eight hilarious roles as he essays the decaying family tree of scheming black sheep Dennis Price, who murders his way up the inheritance ladder. It’s a bewitchingly blackhearted comedy of class warfare played as sardonic farce, directed with a light touch and dry wit by Robert Hamer. In The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), Guinness is a meek bank clerk with a grand plan to steal a fortune in gold bullion with the help of neighbor Stanley Holloway and a pair of Cockey crooks they enlist in a most unusual “help wanted” ad. Charles Crichton directs this amiable caper with good humor and applies crack comic timing to the heist scene and climactic chase. Look for young Audrey Hepburn in a bit part in the opening scene. The Man in the White Suit (1951) is too tame to be a genuine social satire, but the madcap chase to stop mild mannered inventor and idealist Guinness from unleashing his invention–a textile that never wears out and never gets dirty–finds capital and labor in the unusual position of teaming up to protect their mutual interests. Joan Greenwood (who is delectable as Price’s married mistress in Kind Hearts) purrs her way into Guinness’ heart with her throaty voice and sexy delivery as the daffy industrialist’s daughter smitten with her new hero. The best of Guinness’ comedies, it’s directed by Ealing studio’s most deft director, Alexander Mackendrick, as is The Ladykillers (1955), the blackest of Ealing’s black comedies. Herbert Lom and Peter Sellers co-star as members of his gang who meet their match when they try to bump off their dotty landlady. Filling out the set is the sole non-Ealing comedy Captain’s Paradise, with Guinness as a seaman with a wife in two ports. Yvonne De Carlo and Celia Johnson co-star.
Here’s a digest of the other DVD releases featured on my MSN column:
Margherita Buy and Antonio Albanese play an affluent middle class couple whose lives are upended by unemployment and uncertainty in Silvio Soldini’s drama of middle class confidence short circuited by the wild pitches of life. His sensitivity to depression and pride is nicely measured and the performers bring a subtlety to the complicated emotions and frustrations that stress their marriage…
TV: Columbo Movie Mystery Collection 1990:
“There is just one more thing…” Peter Falk first played the cigar-chomping, eternally disheveled LA police detective, Lt. Columbo, in 1968. 22 years later he’s still hounding suspects in the same rumpled overcoat (does he have the dry cleaner wrinkle it special?). This three-disc set features the six TV movies he made in 1990. The murder is still played out in front of our eyes and the show is all a battle of wits between Columbo and his suspect. This unusual structure, along with the sharp scripts and Falk’s unforgettable incarnation of the quirky police detective as a charming eccentric whose forgetful, fidgety, constantly questioning manner keeps his suspects off balance, made this the most entertaining mystery series of its time. The collection opens with “Columbo Cries Wolf,” where Columbo is played by his suspect (Ian Buchanan as a Hugh Hefner-like men’s magazine mogul), and Patrick McGoohan makes his third of four Columbo appearances as the designated murderer in “Agenda For Murder.”
Jean-Claude Brisseau’s offbeat 2000 tale is a wonderfully weird crime spree. Stanislas Merhar plays the good Samaritan with the emotional stability of a spoiled child who turns robber on impulse. He becomes a kind of Robin Hood in cahoots with a desperate postal worker and a man who claims to be a deposed African prince and spends his spare time playing the stock market. It’s a bizarre crime fantasy with surreal detours and an absurd happy ending.
John Carpenter’s solo directorial debut reworks Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo as a low budget gang flick by way of a horror film. A handful of cops, criminals, civilians and office workers have to team up when a nearly faceless gang lays siege to a nearly vacant police station. It’s a tight, taut action thriller. Carpenter turns his dingy set into a claustrophobic cage and builds the tension as the gang takes out the besieged members one by one.
The weekly column goes live every Tuesday on MSN Entertainment.