OUR MAN IN HAVANA - DVD review

Fans of Cold War films need to add this to their libraries, plain and simple.

James Plath's picture
James
Plath

Sony just released this title in a second wave of films they're calling "Martini Movies." And yes, there's at least one scene where the characters sip martinis. The disc design of "Our Man in Havana" features a martini glass and a recipe for making a "Cuban Martini" (6 parts light rum, 1 part dry vermouth, granulated sugar, garnish with lime). Other titles in this latest wave are "Gumshoe" (Gimlet Martini), "Vibes" (Abracadabra Martini), and two released on DVD for the first time: "5ive" (Atomic Orange Martini) and "Getting Straight" (Lava Lamp Martini). The films are billed as "one part top-shelf martini, two parts celluloid history, all garnished with a hint of camp."

"Our Man in Havana" begins with a tile that tells us the picture takes place in Cuba prior to the Castro revolution. After Castro became prime minister in February 1959, foreign assets were nationalized and the island changed personality almost overnight. This film was a rarity insomuch as the Castro government gave permission for to a Hollywood production to film in Havana that April of 1959, mostly because it was anti-Batista, so it's more than fascinating to see numerous shots of Havana when it was still in transition. For me, that was the cake. The icing was a decent script by Graham Greene, excellent direction, a near-noir atmosphere, and surprisingly good acting from Alec Guinness, Burl Ives, and Ernie Kovacs.

There's humor in this light-toned Cold War film and wry cleverness, but I don't know that I'd describe it as a full-blown comedy--yet "Our Man in Havana" was nominated for Best Motion Picture-Comedy at the 1961 Golden Globes. Director Carol Reed, meanwhile, who would go on to win a Best Director Oscar for "Oliver!", was nominated for his work on this film by his peers at the Directors Guild of America. In short, this is an accomplished little black-and-white production that both captures the world of post-WWII espionage and also pokes gentle fun at it.

What's not to like about a film that features a hapless vacuum cleaner salesman who's recruited as a spy? Jim Wormold (Guinness) needs money because his daughter, Milly (Jo Morrow), has expensive tastes and wants to own and ride a horse at an exclusive country club. Complicating matters is that Captain Segura (Kovacs) has designs on her, though he also has his eye on Wormold. But now the "spy" has to produce, and with the help of his friend, Dr. Hasselbacher (Ives), he realizes that making up contacts is a lot easier than trying to recruit them. Same with the reports, which are totally fabricated. If the Soviets are building a doomsday machine in Cuba, what a strange coincidence that it should look like a drawing of a large vacuum cleaner? But there comes a time, of course, when the game-playing turns real--though you couldn't prove it by an emblematic checker game in which Segura and Wormold play with miniature bottles and drink as they capture pieces.

"Dr. Strangelove" is much more of a black Cold War comedy than this, but "Our Man in Havana" is still a clever satire. Oswald Morris ("The Spy Who Came in from the Cold") really gets the tone of this film, and his cinematography reinforces the subtle humor and pointed satire. If there's a character who seems adrift, it's the assistant that headquarters sends to him. Maureen O'Hara feels as if she's wandered onto the set of a different film than the one she's been working on, while the rest--Noel Coward as the recruiter, Ralph Richardson as "C," and a host of minor characters--feel more at home. By contrast, I don't think I've seen better performances from Ives and Kovacs, who make you believe their characters . . . and then some. And Guinness? He's an Everyman who's just trying to get by, and his involvement in grand espionage and the way he's able to fool the top brass provides most of the film's gentle humor.

It's not all chuckles, though, as guns are fired and lives are altered. But "Our Man in Havana" best captures the absurdity of a time when governments were literally feeling their way as they tried to keep tabs on their enemies, and a new world order was taking shape.

Watch this with or without martinis, shaken or stirred. Either way, it's an intriguing film that's artistically constructed. Just as importantly, it's a historical artifact the likes of which you'll never see again.

Video:
"Our Man in Havana" is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, and the black-and-white picture quality is generally good. The contrast levels are lower than I would have liked, with too many scenes shot through with daylight, but as far as graininess goes it's a pretty clear video.

Audio:
The audio is a nothing-fancy Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono with closed captions in English. Tonally, it's a little flat, and the best that can be said is that it's free of distortion and pop/hiss/crackle.

Extras:
The concept is cute, but the bonus features aren't even as substantial as olives in a martini. There's the original trailer and two "Martini Minutes"--clip-montages with voiceover narrative that tries to sell the marketing concept: "Secrets of Seduction" and "How to Travel in Style." More martini recipes or ones for canapés would have been better.

Bottom Line:
Fans of Cold War films need to add this to their libraries, plain and simple. It's an intelligent script that drives the action, and winning performances that sell the satire.

Ratings

Video
6
Audio
6
Extras
3
Film Value
7