Saturday, July 5, 2008

Film Ignorance Addendum #1: Our Man in Havana

Film: Our Man in Havana
Rating: Best. Film. Ever.
Director: Carol Reed
Stars: Alec Guinness, Burl Ives, Maureen O'Hara, Noel Coward
Year: 1960
TSPDT Ranking*: Not on the List
Reason for Ignorance: Unavailable on DVD
Film Ignorance Rating**
: Pending

Not content merely to give myself more than 300 films to watch and write about, I've decided to add films to the Film Ignorance list as I go along. These Film Ignorance Addendums will be classic films that I watch which, upon watching, I can't understand why they didn't make it onto any of the lists used for Film Ignorance. This is the first of these films; unfortunately, there will be more.

It's hard to understand how this film didn't make the BFI's Top 100 British film lists. The creative team is the same as the BFI's #1 film, The Third Man - director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene. And the cast includes Alec Guinness, the most decorated actor on the BFI list and one of my personal all-time favorites, Irish beauty Maureen O'Hara, legendary writer, director, actor, and multiple BFI honoree Noel Coward, and the magnificent Burl Ives.

Our Man in Havana is billed as a comedy, but it's much more than that. Yes, the film is very funny; a British vacuum cleaner salesman named Wormold is living in Havana and is approached by an inept British secret service agent (Coward) to be the secret service's eyes and ears in Havana. Wormold is no good at the job, but needs the money to support his daughter; eventually his drinking buddy Dr. Hasselbacher (Ives) points out that secrets can always be made up, since secrets can't be confirmed by outside sources - that's why they're secrets. In no time, the secret service's Man in Havana is their most popular agent; the drawings of Cuban doomsday devices that he sends them attract the attention of the Prime Minister himself, who notes that they look like giant, diabolical vaccum cleaners.

Fear the Vacuum Cleaner! (from Aggregat456)

But like The Third Man, which mixes some very funny bits into its bleakness, Our Man in Havanna is very chilling as well as funny. Wormold is soon in over his head; his daughter, Dr. Hasselbacher, and his own life are in danger, as are the lives of the Cuban citizens he is pretending to get information from. Furthermore, he's so successful that he's sent extra staff; his secret service secretary (O'Hara) trusts him completely but complicates matters enormously. As this is a Graham Greene script, the price that Wormold ends up paying is enormous, and his transgressions weigh deeply on his conscience.

A final note: Our Man in Havana is a historically good-looking film, not only because it was filmed by Carol Reed. If you've seen The Third Man, you know that Reed has filmed some of the crispest black-and-white photography this side of Citizen Kane, and Our Man, despite a different cinematographer, looks just as good as Third Man does, albeit with fewer Welles-style off-kilter camera angles. Moreover, although Our Man is set in pre-revolutionary Cuba, it was filmed in a magical window of time: in 1959, after Castro's revolution but before his alliance with the Soviet Union and the U.S. embargo. That means Our Man in Havana is the first, and that I know of, only, Anglophone production ever to be shot in Castro's Cuba. As such, Carol Reed's film is not just beautiful, but is a one-of-a-kind document of early revolutionary Cuba.

I heartily advise all of you to see this film, although I do not know how you can see it. I taped it a couple of weeks ago off Turner Classic Movies. My advice: check TV guide for when it comes on again. Until it's out on DVD, this will be a rare and precious gem indeed - rarer still because it represents such a special congruence of talent, artistry, and historical contingency.

*TSPDT stands for They Shoot Pictures Don't They, a 1,000 film list which attempts to index every best films of all times list and choose a consensus best 1,000 films ever. For every Film Ignorance Addendum film, I'll let you know where it stands on the TSPDT list - in other words, how weird is it that this film didn't make my list.

**The "Ignorance Rating" is the percentage of people who voted "Yes" on the poll for this film. If ten people vote in the poll, and 5 of them have seen the movie, I give it an ignorance rating of 50. It's just a ballpark way for me to know how egregious my ignorance was in this case.

1 comment:

bkossy said...

Now on DVD.
I watched it via a Netflix rental.