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.
Sometime in the late 1970s, some enterprising programmer at PBS had the brilliant idea of resurrecting a series of half-hour comedy specials from the late 1950s written and produced by and starring Ernie Kovacs and running them back to back with it’s regular reruns of the ever-popular Monty Python’s Flying Circus. With that single connection, a whole new generation discovered the genius of Kovacs and his creative approach to TV comedy, which twenty years later had aged only in terms of the tools. It’s now more than 50 years since his final special was broadcast (posthumously, it must be said; he died weeks before it ran) and while the technology is primitive, the inspiration, the unexpectedness, the ingenuity and the grace of execution is as fresh and surprising and funny as ever.
Those specials are collected in Shout! Factory six-disc set The Ernie Kovacs Collection—they are indeed the highlight of a box of comedy genius—but merely represent a single disc in the six-disc set, the apex of work he began early in the 1950s in chat shows, variety specials, game shows and whatever else he was offered.
Ernie Kovacs was both the George Melies and the Tex Avery of live TV, playing with the untapped possibilities of the still evolving medium by imagining the impossible and finding the technical resources (some of them ingeniously simple) to make it happen. In an era before computer animation, digital editing or even videotape, when sketches played out like a filmed stage show, he created gags with the quality of cartoons and defied audience expectations with images created with primitive blue-screen and spilt-screen effects, unexpected editing and self-reflexive acknowledgements of his place a TV entertainer interacting with an audience. His inventive use of the tools of the medium and his conceptual approach to comedy was not simply ingenious, it was in the service of wildly creative humor, and his legacy is seen in everything from “Laugh-In” and “Saturday Night Live” to “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and David Letterman.