Blu-ray: ‘Our Man in Havana’ on Twilight Time

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.

Twilight Time

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.

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DVDs for 06/29/10 A White Ribbon of Everlasting Moments, Warlords and Doors and a Hot Tub to Munich

The release of the week is easily Criterion’s Blu-ray edition of The Leopard, which I mull over here, and I write about the fifties gangster noir New York Confidential in a separate post here. Here are the rest of the releases.

The White Ribbon (Sony) – Winner of the Palm D’or at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography, Michael Haneke’s portrait of rural life in Germany before World War II is a beautifully shot film that evokes nostalgia in the austere black-and-white imagery while revealing a corrupt culture under the surface. It’s Haneke’s answer to the “kammerspiel” dramas like Heimat, about the more innocent days before the Nazi Party, the depression and the World Wars, with a visual style that evokes Fassbinder’s Effi Briest, but the simpler times and old world values that Haneke finds behind the doors of lovely manor houses and quaint homes are pure hypocrisy: where power is predation here and the children of the village, the would-be innocents, learn those lessons from the actions and attitudes of their elders. A lot of critics have praised this film highly, but while I appreciate the stunning visual evocation of the world and the unnerving atmosphere of punitive power and calculated cruelty under the carefully managed pose of piety, I find his sensibility sour and cynical, more of a horror film than a social commentary.

I believe the children are our future

There are no supplements on the DVD but the Blu-ray has a substantial collection, including the well-made 50-minute documentary “Michael Haneke: My Life,” which was made for German TV during the production of “The White Ribbon” and features interviews with stars of his previous films (including Juliette Binoche and Isabelle Huppert), and the 38-minute “Making Of The White Ribbon,” which features a wealth of revelatory footage with Haneke rehearsing his cast (especially with the kids) and directing on the set. Also includes the press conference from the Cannes Film Festival premiere and a 14-minute interview with Haneke. The film and the supplements are all in German with English subtitles.

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The Third Man – Sardonic, Savage and oh-so-Continental

[Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.]

The Third Man, Carol Reed’s Continental noir masterpiece set in the bombed-out ruins of a post-World War II Vienna carved up by occupying Allied forces, is more than half over when Harry Lime makes his memorable entrance. He’s just a dark presence in a doorway off a cobblestone street, noticed only by a stray cat, until the sudden spill of light from a nearby apartment sweeps away the shadows and catches him like a fugitive in the spotlight, revealing the chagrined look on the face of … Orson Welles! He simply flashes an impish smile to Joseph Cotten and skitters down the alley, his long shadow stretched across the walls behind him.

It’s more than just a getaway. Welles makes off with the entire movie in that moment — we just don’t realize it yet. His Harry Lime is a charmer, a lover, a scamp, a baby-faced crook carving out his place in the rubble-strewn underworld of postwar Vienna, and he dominates The Third Man with barely 10 minutes of screen time.

Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles
Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles

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‘Our Man in Havana’ on TCM

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.

Alec Guinness and Ernie Kovacs
Alec Guinness and Ernie Kovacs

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.

Read the complete review here.

‘The Man Between’ for TCM

I wrote about Carol Reed’s The Third Man for Turner Classic Movies a couple of years ago and more recently wrote on The Fallen Idol. Now they are screening his rarely-see The Man Between, which returns Reed to the post-war European theater, this time with the focus on cold war tensions.

James Mason weighs his options
James Mason weighs his options

The cold war proved such a hot setting for Carol Reed’s brilliant continental thriller The Third Man (1949) that he made a return visit to the territory in The Man Between (1953). Instead of a Vienna carved up by the Allies, this film takes us to Berlin of the early fifties, a city divided into West and Soviet-controlled East Berlin with checkpoints and security stations. Our introduction to this post-World War II Berlin is much like that of our heroine, Susanne (Claire Bloom), a decisive young British woman who flies to Germany to visit her brother, Martin (Geoffrey Toone), and his German wife, Bettina (Bettina Mallison). Susanne is whisked from the international modernity of the airport to the quaint beauty of old Berlin, a tourist vision of Bavarian charm that Susanne finds enchanting. It’s Bettina’s way of showing this impressionable young woman the best of her home before taking her to the reality of the rest of the war-ravaged city.

From the opening scenes, Reed establishes a tension: strangers ominously eye their movements through the airport and a young boy on a bicycle, an otherwise unobtrusive figure of innocence playing in the streets, tails their taxi and makes lazy figure-eights outside their home, a lone building jutting out of the rubble and ruins of their sector of the city. Bettina is nervous and agitated and a night on the town does nothing to ease her disposition; she slips out for a surreptitious meeting that only jangles her nerves more. Susanne finally sees the mystery man on a day trip to East Berlin. As they settle in for tea at a café, the figure (guided by the boy on a bicycle, keeping up his dogged surveillance) steps into the room and over to their table like an old friend. James Mason is the smoothly shady and romantically sinister Ivo Kern, an acquaintance – and surely much more – of Bettina. Susanne is instantly fascinated and an odd kind of courtship begins between the impressionable but headstrong young woman and the older man with an ulterior motive, one that inevitably draws her into the political intrigue of citizens fleeing the East for the West and the espionage by agents no better than mercenary thugs attempting to staunch the flow. “He’s not the government and neither am I,” the weary skeptic Ivo confesses to Bettina after she’s snatched from the streets of West Berlin by an East German agent. “He’s just a gangster trying to get what he can.”

Read the entire piece here. The film, which is not on home video in any form (at least in the U.S.), plays on TCM on January 24.

‘The Fallen Idol’ on TCM

I write about Carol Reed’s beautiful The Fallen Idol for Turner Classic Movies. It’s one of the director’s masterpieces and his first collaboration with Graham Greene and it was a pleasure to revisit the film and become once again enthralled in the perfection of it.

Looking down on Reed's world
Looking down on Reed's world

From the opening shot of The Fallen Idol, we see the world through the eyes of a young boy on the verge of adolescence. Phillipe (Bobby Henrey, a non-actor in his screen debut) is the son of the French Ambassador to England and lives in the ambassadorial mansion in London. From the living quarters on the second floor, he can be found peering through the banister down into the grand entry room below, a space where public and private life converge and a stage where the adult world plays out for his not quite comprehending eyes and ears. The staff below bustles about to prepare for the ambassador’s absence over the weekend, oblivious to Phillipe above except for the efficient and thoroughly professional butler Baines (Ralph Richardson), who always makes time for a friendly wink and a conspiratorial glance up to Phillipe. The boy adores Baines, who regales him with grand adventure stories from his time in darkest Africa, and looks forward to his weekend with Baines while his parents are away. Baines dotes on the boy who is otherwise friendless in residence. Mrs. Baines (Sonia Dresdel) is another matter, an authoritarian housekeeper who acts like a strict, disciplinarian headmistress around Phillipe. He quite understandably keeps his pet snake, MacGregor, hidden from Mrs. Baines, and the warm, accepting Baines conspires to keep Phillipe’s secret and keep the harmless snake safe from his wife, with whom relations are visibly strained and formal.

In close collaboration with Reed, Greene expanded and reworked the original story. He turned the murder into an accidental death which the boy only sees in glimpses and fragments. Convinced he’s witnessed his best friend commit murder, he’s wracked with fear but beholden by loyalty, and he unwittingly imperils his friend as he lies to cover up the deed. Reed suggested turning the pre-war British mansion of the story into the residence of the French ambassador in London, which not only explains the opulence of a lavish household with servants in post-war England but also sets it apart from the outside world even more literally – it’s technically foreign soil. Phillipe is spelled in the French fashion but always pronounced as the British “Philip” by the butler Baines and the rest of the staff. Greene added the snake, MacGregor, which is a marvelous, boyish touch and suggests a touch of symbolism: there is a snake in the mansion that is this boy’s Eden, but it isn’t MacGregor. It was a happy collaboration and a fortuitous partnership for both of them: Greene found in Reed a sensitive and savvy collaborator who understood the essentials of a good story and the art of writing for the screen, and the two worked together on two subsequent occasions: Greene wrote The Third Man (1949) and adapted his comic thriller Our Man in Havana (1959) for Reed. The Fallen Idol remained his favorite of his films.

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