Alec Guinness and Maureen O’Hara star in OUR MAN IN HAVANA, directed by Carol Reed for Columbia Pictures.

Our Man in Havana (1959, Carol Reed)

As Our Man in Havana opened, I couldn’t help thinking of Touch of Evil. Reed uses a cock-eyed angle a few times throughout the film and it looks like Evil. The music doesn’t hurt either. Except, I hadn’t realized it was Reed–the opening titles start a few minutes in to the film–and then all I could think about was The Third Man for the opening titles. The film picks up immediately following, so the preoccupation didn’t last.

Our Man in Havana is a quiet film. A quiet film with a loud music, but a quiet film. It’s hard to explain, or maybe not so much–it’s quiet in the scenes where Maureen O’Hara and Alec Guinness communicate silently and it’s quiet in the scenes where Guinness has to do things and can’t tell anyone, including the audience. It gets even quieter than those two examples, but I don’t really want to spoil anything.

The film is an odd mix of comedy and suspense. Reed handles the mood perfectly, even treating some of Guinness scenes–the early ones–like old Ealing comedies. It all changes when O’Hara arrives, then the film becomes strangely Hollywood–before, with just Burl Ives and Ernie Kovacs, Havana seems small and peculiar, but when O’Hara shows up (in one of those quiet scenes) she signals a change–not just to film’s atmosphere or to the second act accelerating, but to Guinness’s character as well. The small British comedy–albeit in Cinemascope–has all of a sudden gotten out of his hands.

There’s not a false step in the film, from the first few moments with Noel Coward’s small role as Guinness’s recruiter. It’s an Ealing comedy about British people abroad, mixed with a spy thriller, but the result is … obviously, quiet. It’s a quiet film about expatriates and the friendship among them. For some of it. Towards the end, it shaves off even the expatriates part and just becomes about friendship. (Quietly, of course).

Guinness is perfect and Ives and O’Hara are both great–their scenes together, Guinness and Ives and Guinness and O’Hara, are wonderful–but the most surprising performance is Kovacs. He brings this humanity and a sadness to his performance, in a role those traits would seem to be incompatible and creates a lot of beautiful moments in the third act.

Our Man in Havana is shamefully unavailable in region one (it’s out in the UK). It’s certainly a reason for one to investigate as a region-free DVD player.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Carol Reed; screenplay by Graham Greene, based on his novel; director of photography, Oswald Morris; edited by Bert Bates; music by Frank Deniz and Laurence Deniz; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Alec Guinness (Jim Wormold), Burl Ives (Dr. Hasselbacher), Maureen O’Hara (Beatrice Severn), Ernie Kovacs (Capt. Segura), Noel Coward (Hawthorne), Ralph Richardson (‘C’), Jo Morrow (Milly Wormold), Grégoire Aslan (Cifuentes) and Paul Rogers (Hubert Carter).


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