Our Man in Havana (1959) (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) is the third and final collaboration between director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene. In some ways it plays like a sardonic post-script to their great success, The Third Man, in others a transition film between the gritty but heroic espionage thrillers of the forties and fifties and the far more ambivalent and skeptical work of John Le Carre, as seen in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold just a few years later. (Le Carre’s The Tailor of Panama spins an updated version of the same basic story of Havana.) The big difference is tone: Our Man in Havana is a lampoon of international espionage games and the gullible officers running Britain’s MI6 like an old boy’s club. Everyone on their honor and all that.
Alec Guinness is Jim Wormold, the meek British everyman in Batista’s Cuba and a single father trying to keep his pretty, spoiled teenage daughter (Jo Morrow) safe from the wolves prowling the streets of Havana. Reluctantly drafted by a British Secret Service agent (perfectly droll Noel Coward), he finds he’s a lousy agent but a terrific author and, failing any legitimate intelligence, he spins a doozy of a secret agent yarn, complete with a cast of supporting agents (all in need of generous expense accounts) and a secret installation worthy of a James Bond villain. It’s a veritable cash cow but it also brings unwanted attention from the head of British Intelligence (a dryly officious Ralph Richardson) who sense him a staff to expand his operations (including neophyte secretary Maureen O’Hara). The satire of gullible intelligence officers and corrupt politicians (an oily, somewhat sinister Ernie Kovacs as the soft-spoken terror Capt. Segura) take a darker turn when the fantasies spun by Wormold take root in the spy community, leaving real victims in its wake. Our man in Havana a target of enemy agents and his apolitical best friend and drinking buddy, the world-weary German expatriate Dr. Hasselbacher (Burl Ives), gets caught in the middle of the intelligence turf war.
I wrote a feature review of Sony’s DVD release of Carol Reed’s Our Man in Havana, starring Alec Guinness as a meek vacuum cleaner salesman in Havana who concocts fictional intelligence reports for the British Secret Service, for Turner Classic Movies.
Our Man in Havana, the third and final collaboration between director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene, makes a sardonic post-script to their great success, The Third Man. Like that film, it deals in espionage in an exotic hotspot (in this case, Havana, just as revolution was brewing in Cuba’s jungles) where numerous world powers had interests, and features an innocent who manages to get in the middle of international scuffles. The difference is in the tone. Our Man in Havana is a dryly witty satire of the spy game.
There’s a deft wit to Greene script, which Guinness and the cast play perfectly, and plenty of humor at the expense of gullible intelligence officers. But the film takes a darker turn when the fantasies spun by Wormold take root in the spy community. His phony agents are based on real people, and one of them turns up dead. His apolitical best friend and drinking buddy, the world-weary German expatriate Dr. Hasselbacher (Burl Ives), gets caught in the middle of the intelligence turf war. And Wormold himself becomes a target of enemy agents and, out of necessity, becomes the real life espionage player he’d been posing on paper all this time. He’s almost too good and confident in the transition, belying his amateur status and everyman vulnerability. But like Wormold himself, the film gives in to the fantasy to let him be a hero.
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. Continue reading “DVDs for 2/3/09 – ‘Our Man in Havana’ and the Martini Movies Collection”