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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Videophiled Classics: Otto Preminger’s ‘Bunny Lake is Missing’

Twilight Time

Bunny Lake Is Missing (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) – In the late 1950s and early 1960s, no American director melded classic Hollywood style and cool modern European elegance better than producer/director Otto Preminger. His handsome films are celebrations of introspection and stylistic remove and his best work defined not by heroes and villains but complex, flawed, achingly sympathetic characters. On the surface, this 1965 mystery is no more than a smartly done, intelligently written thriller but Preminger’s fierce cinematic intelligence guides a fluid camera that effortlessly tracks, glides, and reframes characters as they shift through scenes, shifting our perspective along the way.

Carol Lynley is an American single mother who has just moved to London with her brother (Keir Dullea) and her young daughter Bunny, who we never actually see before she suddenly goes missing. Laurence Olivier delivers one of his best performances as a police inspector full of blank smiles, putting on a mask of practiced civility while investigating the disappearance of a child that no one can remember seeing. Lynley is another of Preminger’s lithe, lovely heroines who finds herself isolated and alienated, a stranger in a culture that feels just slightly off (Noel Coward is particularly unsettling as a landlord with questionable motivations), while devoted brother Dullea supports her through the ordeal. While Lynley’s panic tips into paranoia and makes us question her grasp on reality—does Bunny even exist?—Dullea’s glazed cool and dazed smiles make him a little questionable as well. Like Olivier, Preminger conceals his feelings, wielding the camera like a microscope examining the layers of his characters while setting in motion with a choreographer’s grace.

Please note, however, that the prominent billing of the British rock group The Zombies refers only to a rather contrived appearance on a TV screen in the background of one shot and a song playing on a transistor radio in another. They make no actual appearance in the film as such, yet I can’t help but grudgingly respect Preminger’s purely commercial movie. He made films his way, but as his own producer, he was savvy enough to play the promoter.

It’s a gorgeous CinemaScope movie and Twilight Time does the film up nicely, with a strong transfer of a good-looking HD master from Columbia Pictures, a studio with a superb record of preserving, restoring, and making high-quality digital transfers of their catalog. It’s a reminder that black and white films offer a whole new dimension on good-quality Blu-ray releases, not just added sharpness and clarity but a greater depth of gray scale and shading.

The original Twilight Time model was to provide high-quality releases of films from studio vaults in limited edition runs with minimal supplements beyond an isolated score track and a booklet with an essay by house writer Julie Kirgo. Since their launch, however, they have started including featurettes and other supplements from previous DVD releases where possible, and providing original commentary tracks on select releases. This release offers commentary by film historian Lem Dobbs with in-house historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman (who also founded the label), a trio that has done more than a few commentary tracks together, and their ease gives the track an easy-going quality as they dig into the film and offer historical and critical perspective. Also includes three trailers.

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‘David Lean Directs Noël Coward’ on TCM

Noël Coward was one of the most famous men in Britain in the 1930s, a legendary playwright, actor, songwriter, showman, wit, and bon vivant, a British pop star before there was such a name for it. But he was not served well by the movies, where his plays were reworked until they lost the snap of his British society champagne wit (the 1931 Private Lives) or simply rewritten beyond recognition (Ernst Lubitsch’s superb, but no longer Coward-esque, Design For Living). So when he decided to embark on an original production during World War II to celebrate the men and women in the war effort, he decided to do it himself, as writer, director, producer, star, and even composer. He just needed a little help on mastering the filmmaking thing, and to that end he gave a talented and ambitious film editor his first big break as a director. Noël Coward took top billing as co-director of In Which We Serve, the “story of a ship” and the men who served on it, but he shared that billing with David Lean, who was brought on to handle the more technical aspects of the production. Lean soon took over much more of the direction on set and Coward launched a magnificent career.

The four films in Criterion’s superb box set David Lean Directs Noël Coward survey a unique collaboration of artists, to be sure, and not just between Lean and Coward, who takes top billing in all four films even when’s simply serving as producer and source material. Co-producer Anthony Havelock-Allan, who ran point of all four productions, and cinematographer Ronald Neame, who shot three of the pictures and co-produced the fourth, both collaborated with Lean on the screenplays, reshaping Coward’s plays for the screen.

This collection offers a superb survey of David Lean’s rapid growth from talented director with solid instincts and professional craftsmanship to an artist in his own right, and a showcase of the best cinematic incarnations of Noël Coward’s work. But it’s also a time capsule of Britain’s self image during the war (as refracted through Noël Coward’s sensibility and David Lean’s sense of restraint), an introduction to the young John Mills (soon to be one of Lean’s defining actors), and a celebration of the magnificent stage actress Celia Johnson, whose big-eyed, crooked-faced radiance takes on an uncommon beauty by her third film with the team.

“This is the story of a ship,” intones the narrator (an unbilled Trevor Howard) in In Which We Serve, a 1942 production inspired by the story of Lord Louis Mountbatten and his ship, which was sunk off of Crete. It opens with the building of a British Destroyer, the HMS Torrin, segues into a whirlwind introduction to the Captain (Noël Coward), crew, and loved ones back home, and then rather unexpectedly brings us right to the ship’s end, sunk by German bombers barely a few minutes into the film. As the planes try to pick off the oil-covered survivors hanging on to a life raft, their stories play out on flashback, from Captain down through Chief Petty Officer Hardy (Bernard Miles) and Ordinary Seaman Shorty Blake (a fresh-faced John Mills), and even a side trip to an unnamed powder handler played by a very young Richard Attenborough in his film debut.

You could call it a propaganda piece, an uplifting film about sacrifice and duty in the face of war that celebrates the service of Britain’s men in war and the endurance of the women (including Celia Johnson as Coward’s wife) left behind. But it is also an accomplished, sincere, and moving piece of filmmaking that honors the characters and involves the audience. The stories and sensibility of emotional restraint and understated commitment to duty is all Coward, but the structure and the storytelling comes from Lean, a talented editor with a keen understanding of the power of images and editing to invite audiences into the film.

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