Released by: Twilight Time Releasing Released on: March 14th, 2017. Director: Carol Reed Cast: Alec Guinness, Maureen O'Hara, Burl Ives Year: 1959 Purchase From Screen Archives
The 1959 film of Graham Greene’s satirical novel "Our Man In Havana" may not be quite as famous as Stanley Kubrick's DR. STRANGELOVE, but it remains one of the more potent examples of the political spoof genre.
Legendary director Carol Reed (THE THIRD MAN) does a bang up job telling the story of vacuum cleaner salesman James Wormold (Alec Guinness). Wormold is a transplanted Brit living in Cuba before the revolution who is bizarrely recruited into the British secret service (that's MI6 to you and me, chaps) by a rather mysterious fellow named Hawthorne (Noël Coward). He seems an odd choice and one of the film's strengths is this ambiguity. Because, let's be frank, don't most of us find the foreign policy decisions of the major world powers baffling?
I could tell you the exact plot of this thing but then of course I'd have to kill you. But here's the bare framework. Wormold lives with his charming but spoiled daughter Milly (Jo Morrow) in Havana selling vacuum cleaners. He's a simple fellow but his daughter's tastes are decidedly not. She likes expensive thoroughbred horses and "needs" country club memberships. All of this leaves the hapless Wormold in a constant cash crisis, so when he's approached by Hawthorne with an opportunity to fatten his coffers AND show his loyalty to Queen and country, it seems a perfect solution.
There's one huge stumbling block here though. Wormold is a piss poor spy and his attempts at recruiting contacts are some of the film's funniest moments. One of the defining characteristics of the spy trade is the fine line it treads between exhilarating excitement and utter absurd hilarity. For every James Bond moment of derring-do there's a ridiculous bathroom encounter involving running water and indecipherable signals that make your would-be agent think he's dealing with a potential sexual assault. So what's a likable bumbler to do? Make stuff up out of whole cloth of course!
Wormold's fanciful reports seem to satisfy the higher ups and lead to further complications when they send him some backup in the form of Beatrice Severn (Maureen O’Hara). Seems his latest fabrication, a hilariously phallic super-weapon who's description resembles nothing less than a rather big Hoover upright vacuum cleaner, has the higher ups in London all atwitter. They figure he's going to need some extra eyes and ears on this one to keep up.
OUR MAN IN HAVANA is a clever comedy of manners as well as a slyly satiric take on the espionage trade and the nature of the British postwar character. The film is filled with eccentrics like Burl Ives' German Doctor Hasselbacher who ends up being questioned by the Cuban secret police for the crime of "suspiciously" chatting in the vacuum shop with spymaster Hawthorne (who of course he has no connection to). Then there's the oily Cuban Captain Segura (Ernie Kovacks), who clearly has a thing for Wormold's daughter and the great Ralph Richardson as "C" - the true high command back in London who gets increasingly excited at the prospect of thwarting that phallic super-weapon.
And Guinness? Shame that one of Britain's finest actors went to his grave more famous for STAR WARS than films like this, but the wheel of fate turns strangely at times. Here all of the man's gifts are on ample display - pitch perfect comic timing, gorgeously understated reactions and the ability to fully and believably inhabit a character in the most absurd scenarios. There was also a genuine warmth to Guinness - his scenes with his daughter are lovely.
Shot right at the dividing line between pre and post Castro Cuba, there's a strangely haunting quality to OUR MAN IN HAVANA at times with the knowledge we have now. Just around the corner was that infamous missile crisis. Give that a thought the next time North Korea is in the news.
Twilight Time continue their tradition of excellence with their Sony titles here. This 1080p AVC encoded 2.35:1. transfer is gorgeous. This is a razor sharp presentation that is a great example of just how terrific black and white films can look when you have optimal conditions. Source elements are pristine and black levels just right. There's no evidence of image tampering so everything looks organic and natural. Fine detail is aces (take a gander at the mane on that horse) with close ups benefitting most. Bottom line? This is an optimal visual presentation.
DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono is the order of the day on the sound front and it manages to get the job done. There's nothing remarkable about this track. It sounds like a well-preserved example of what the film sounded like at the theatre in 1959. Range is limited but there's no obvious shrillness or anomalies like dropouts. And there are no issues hearing dialog. The 2.0 isolated score (a Twilight Time standard and welcome bonus) sounds about the same but is more than suitable for solo listening.
Extras? Sadly, only the previously mentioned isolated score and a theatrical trailer. Would have loved a typically high quality Twilight Time commentary track, but at least you can take solace in another great set of Julie Kirgo liner notes. The woman knows her stuff and remains a treat to read.
The Final Word:
This is truly engaging film that is both entertaining and thought-provoking. Fans of classic cinema and Guinness or the oeuvre of the brilliant Carol Reed will be thrilled with this presentation. It looks first class and I unreservedly recommend it despite being light on extras.
Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!