Label: Twilight Time
Released: March 14, 2017
Genre: Espionage / Black Comedy
Synopsis: A vacuum salesman utterly inexperienced in espionage is recruited by England to keep tabs on local intrigue with disastrous results.
Special Features: Isolated Mono Music & Effects Track / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and www.twilighttimemovies.com.
A bone-dry dark comedy, Graham Greene’s screen adaptation of his 1958 novel also gave director Carol Reed an opportunity to show he possessed a wicked sense of humour, riffing some of the stylistic elements from The Third Man (1949) and walking a fine line between comedy, satire, and genuine drama.
Although it has the stark gloss and production value of a thriller, Our Man in Havana is all comedy, with a simple Hoover vacuum salesman in pre-Revolutionary Cuba being enticed by a MI6 handler into becoming a spy for Her Majesty. Jim Wormold (Alex Guinness) isn’t an idiot, but an opportunist, and agrees to take on the role of Britain’s Havana-based spy purely for the monthly and very tax-free $150 stipend offered by Hawthorne (scene-stealing Noel Coward).
The problem? He hasn’t the foggiest idea what to do, and becomes desperate when London demands results. Good friend Dr. Hasselbacher (Burl Ives) suggests he invent minions and feed London further fantasy factoids, since fiction can’t possibly do anyone harm. This simple plan is wholeheartedly accepted by Wormold, creating a diversity of reliable moles and sending hand-crafted images of deadly super-weapons to London, from which he’s able to fund the luxurious needs of spoiled daughter Milly (The 3 Worlds of Gulliver’s Jo Morrow).
The bigger problem? Wormold becomes too successful, prompting London to verify his data through the aide of a seasoned assistant, Beatrice Severn (Maureen O’Hara), and a minor minion. His life becomes precarious, and his relationship with corrupt police Captain Segura (Ernie Kovacs) is unnerving, as the similar-aged authoritarian has eyes and secret plans for not-quite-adult Milly.
Reed shot in Havana a few months after Fidel Castro claimed Cuba, making the film a rare snapshot of the city in its ‘everything is legal’ state before the State got cozy with Soviet Russia, the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and the 1962 embargo reduced the country to a more brittle economic state.
Among Wormold’s ‘contacts’ is an exotic dancer, necessitating a few enticing moments in a sprawling nightclub with leggy Tropicana dancers, and there’s much footage of local streets and Havana’s gleaming parliament building. The film’s opening shot is a stunner: Reed’s camera follows a woman in a large pool swimming to screen right, and as the lens lifts up, we see Havana’s exquisite bay, hammering home the film’s use of authentic locations.
Reed also indulges in a series of poetic touches: a couple who launch the main title sequence move in measured, dancer-like steps, and reappear in a few background shots for no logical reason except as subversive reminders by the director not to take anything in Havana too seriously.
Additionally, wherever Hawthorne travels in Havana, he’s perpetually followed (and surrounded) by a street band, unable to to follow Wormold discretely, and forced to shout words over the band’s recurring catchy tune. Reed sets up the gag and repeats it a few times, characterizing the musicians like a cloud of gnats that refuse to dissipate.
Hawthorne’s teaching Wormold tricks of the trade is equally droll, with fast quips and moments of stark absurdism: when the pair meet ‘in secret’ at a Jamaican beach resort, Hawthorne stops their inaugural conversation to close a bamboo door that, like the surrounding walls, is just an open frame – an empty gesture, given anyone within a few feet can hear their discussion.
Whether it resided in the novel, the script, or Reed’s devious head, there’s also strange sexual subtext within the film, anchored to little Milly. She’s a ‘mature’ teen, and in her first screen appearance, initially resembles Wormold’s mistress, drawing attention of onlookers as she crosses a busy street with new shopping boxes & bags.
Although Milly doesn’t ogle or display any sexual longings, instead of clothes or shoes, she invests in equestrian gear, which Reed reveals in provocative shots: straps, clasps, and saddle suspended in her room around an invisible horse. In a later scene when Wormold spies one of the shopping boxes on the floor, he tips off the cover with an umbrella and drapes the strapping bit over her neck, which she lovingly coddles in her hands. That scene sets up a follow-up when she presents her new horse Seraphine to daddy at same the country club where Segura spends his downtime (mostly watching her ride horseback).
Milly rejects Segura’s advances, but tolerates his fantasizing because his obsession and interest helps maintain her level of social privilege within Havana. When Wormold scores extra cash to cover the expense of a club membership, he’s allowed entry not as a valid member, but because he’s ‘Milly’s father.’ Segura makes it clear to Wormold he wants to wed Milly, but Wormold never says no; he leaves it up to his daughter, being ignorant or oblivious or too daft (except in the mechanics and suction power of Hoovers).
Most of the characters’ predicaments ultimately connect and come to a head in the final act, but there’s an oddness to everything within Havana, as though the city itself is flat-out bonkers. Segura’s behaviour and corruption may be tied to the Batista regime, but the filmmakers seem to suggest any authoritarian regime would yield a Segura, ordering street patrols and interrogating passersby out of boredom. Hasselbacher is harassed early in the film because like Wormold, he’s a foreign national Segura can make disappear or boot from the country.
Guinness is the de facto star of Havana, but secondary and minor characters are exceptionally cast. Ives doesn’t nail a German accent for his character, but that regional wobbling adds to his oddness; Kovacs (Bell Book and Candle) underplays Segura, making him droll but also scary, and inferring his full capability for unfair arrest and engage in torture (topics that are dropped in a quick dialogue exchange); and O’Hara’s role, while quite small, opens up the film with healthier sexual teasing, even though her romance with Wormold doesn’t click until (literally) the very end. Ralph Richardson (The Fallen Idol) plays naïve spy chief C fully straight, and prolific character actors Ferdy Mayne (A Man Called Intrepid) and Paul Rogers (Billy Budd) add depth to minor characters drawn into Wormold’s fantastical web.
Havana is a film that’s aged extremely well – it’s a genre classic, pre-James Bond and pre-Bond spoofs that walks a fine line between light and darkness – and due to its impeccable performances and tone, shouldn’t be remade, especially since it’s a snapshot of the Castro regime which eventually became corrupt.
Reed’s career may not have been boosted by the film – he moved on to an aborted stint helming of Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) with Marlon Brando before coming back into form via a series of blockbusters (Oliver!), but soon after fizzling away with smaller, minor films – but it represents a an important shift in his ongoing fascination with characters dragged into dreadfully dangerous, secretive circumstances and behaviour.
Reed’s luck in tackling topical politics in films was largely successful, from the post-WWII carnage in Vienna that gave The Third Man such bleakness, and the converging ideologies and eventual segregation of East Germany via divided Berlin in The Man Between (1953). Havana forms the final chapter in his unofficial B&W espionage trilogy, albeit with a deliberately satirical angle.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray sports a gorgeous transfer of the film, showcasing the stunning cinematography by Oswald Morris, who would shift gears from high-contrast Cuban sunlight to grainy East German grime in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) and the espionage thrillers The MacKintosh Man (1973), and later The Odessa File (1974), situated in isolated West Berlin.
The disc also features a mono isolated music & effects track – the only release of the largely acoustic score composed by Frank and Laurence Deniz, members of Britain’s guitar band Hermanos Deniz. As with Third Man’s score by zithermeister Anton Karras, Havana’s music was composed and performed by film scoring newcomers, and consists of mostly source cues which morph into score in the finale as intrigue, desperation, and murder come into play.
TT’s resident historian Julie Kirgo penned a concise overview of the film’s excellence, citing Greene’s background with MI6, his encounters with ‘creative’ German agents, and the film’s influence on author John le Carré (The Russia House), especially The Tailor of Panama, written in 1996 and filmed in 2001.
© 2017 Mark R. Hasan
Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review