“Gumshoe,” “Five,” “Our Man in Havana” and Martini Movies – DVDs for the Week 2/3/09
What exactly is a “Martini Movie”? Sony hasn’t really explained the meaning behind the moniker it’s used to brand a collection of otherwise unrelated films from the Columbia Pictures catalogue. But based on the promotional featurettes the Sony has whipped up for each of the now ten DVDs released that imprint, a “Martini Movie” is a cinematic cocktail made up of varying measures of hard-boiled attitude, sardonic self-awareness, nostalgic naivetÃ© and campy exaggeration. And, according the cocktail recipes printed on each disc, these are movies best seen under alcoholic lubrication.
Whether or not that’s an accurate overview of the first wave released in October 2008, which included the sub-Gilda noir exotica Affair in Trinidad with Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth, the racketeer drama The Garment Jungle with Lee J. Cobb and Sidney Lumet’s witty 1971 heist film The Anderson Tapes, it’s a downright disingenuous appellation for at least some of the films released under that brand on DVD this week. The five films in this eccentric collection are the hipster youth generation satire Getting Straight with Elliot Gould; the Jeff Goldblum psychics-on-the-run comedy Vibes (notable as the feature debut of Cindi “She-Bop” Lauper); Stephen Frears’ first film Gumshoe with Albert Finney; and the first-ever home video releases of Arch Oboler’s 1951 end-of-the-world drama Five and Carol Reed’s 1959 spy satire Our Man in Havana. It’s this latter trio of titles, minor classics debuting with little fanfare in bare-bones editions, that I hope to draw a little attention to.
“I want to write The Maltese Falcon, record ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ and play Las Vegas.” So proclaims Eddie Ginley (Albert Finney), a small-time bingo caller and wannabe stand-up comic, to his therapist in the opening scene of Gumshoe (1971). But he’ll settle for running an ad in the local paper offering his services as a private detective (no divorce cases), his present to himself for his 31st birthday. When he gets a call from a client, he just assumes his buddies are playing along for a laugh, but the package he gets from The Fat Man includes â‚¤1,000, a picture of a girl and a gun. Eddie’s no P-I and he knows it, but when his brother gets him canned from his only paying gig, there’s nothing stopping him from following the trail to the end of the line.
The film, directed by Stephen Frears from an original screenplay by Neville Smith, is at once a loving tribute to old HollywoodÂ detective movies, a playful tale of one man’s attempt to live out a movie fantasy and a grounded drama of a man who understands the difference between reality and make-believe but doesn’t let that change the way he lives. Eddie’s the kind of guy who can’t help but slip into hard-boiled patter (delivered with a touch of Bogie) when the opportunity arises, even if he’s clad in BVDs and a ratty bathrobe and devouring a bowl of cold cereal between his tough-guy cracks. It’s the kind of touch that makes Eddie Gimley so genuine and Finney plays him as a regular bloke with a non-stop sense of whimsy, a smart retort for occasion and a penchant for narrating his story in the vernacular of an American wise guy. Frears roots the film in the dreary atmosphere of working-class Liverpool, where the folks escape the industrial grime in “The Broadway Club,” a cheap music hall where the locals gather to eat, drink and enjoy the entertainment between rounds of bingo. It may be a shabby place, but Frears never stoops to ridicule the audience or the entertainers. The club boss, a semi-connected guy whose affection for Eddie emerges from the banter, is a real character cut from the same cloth: the photos of show-biz royalty posing with him are all lovingly-produced fakes. No wonder he has such a soft-spot for Eddie. They both play out their dreams in harmless games. When the case turns downright dangerous, there’s a bit of shamus chivalry in Eddie’s act, as if the trenchcoat and hard-boiled affectation gives him the courage and the determination to play the hero for once. He knows the score, but that doesn’t mean he can’t have a little fun while he plays out his hand.
The film was released on videotape by Columbia Pictures (before it was bought by Sony) back in the early days of VHS so it was technically available â€“ that’s how I saw it some twenty years ago â€“ but hardly representative of the film experience. The DVD debut is letterboxed at 1.66:1 (you can just see the slivers of black on each side of the screen) and looks fine, if not exactly stellar. Then again, that’s how the film was shot, in the dull, desaturated colors befitting the working-class environment of Eddie’s industrial hometown of Liverpool.
Arch Oboler’s Five is not the first end-of-the-world film, but it is the first to end it by nuclear holocaust: it opens on the familiar mushroom cloud and Oboler proceeds to scrubs the wonders of the world and the landmarks of civilization free of human habitation with a few simple visual effects and the savage scream of a whipping wind. The title, as you likely guessed, refers the number of people in the cast, but as the winds die down there is just a single, lone woman dazed and terrified and stumbling through the abandoned relics of human habitation desperate to find another human. When she does, she falls into a state of shock, unable to speak at the sight of a man living in a house upon a hill. The scene calls to mind the opening of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead fifteen year later; was he inspired by this scene or even the film as a whole? Slowly the five come together â€“ Roseanne (Susan Douglas), a pregnant woman desperate to see if her husband survived; Michael (William Phipps), a working class philosopher ready to build a home far away from the dead cities; Charles (Charles Lampkin), a black ex-G.I. who worked at a bank with the aged Mr. Barnstaple (Earl Lee); and German mountain climber Eric (James Anderson), an arrogant racist with delusions of genetic superiority. For all they (or we) know, they are the only humans left alive in world.
The film is more allegorical than realistic, full of debates on morality and responsibility and offering a contrast between an existence built on cooperation and community versus the singular desires of the individual acting in his own interests. But Oboler, who made his fame in radio, does create an eerie sense isolation. Obolor shot the film at his own ranch, using a guesthouse built by Frank Lloyd Wright set against the magnificent forest. The pristine wilderness looks untouched by man or war, but there are no animals in this Eden, just birds, heard on the soundtrack but never seen. Michael, who was in the Empire State Building when the end of the world came and made his way across the continent to this house on the California coast, has no interest in entering the cities to scavenge food. He’s eager to return to the earth and farm, with occasional visits to a local country store for canned goods (the sign in the door reads “Back in 5 minutes,” a bit of grim humor in an otherwise humorless film). Eric, however, has no identity outside of civilization and returns to the dead city to play king of the world, but while he ransacks jewels from the city stores, Roseanne gapes as the desolate streets and the skeletons in the cars and on the sidewalks. And while there’s some discussion of radiation poisoning, the telltale sores and boils on the skin speaks volumes.
The low budget, black and white film, presented in the original 1.33:1 Academy ratio, appears to be mastered from a print with grit in some scenes (it looks like it could have been in the camera negative) and what could be emulsion damage or degradation in other spots, but for the most part it looks fine.
Our Man in Havana (1959) is the third and final collaboration between director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene. In some ways it plays like a sardonic post-script to their great success, The Third Man. In others, it feels like the transition film between the gritty but heroic espionage thrillers of the forties and fifties and the far more ambivalent and skeptical work of John Le Carre, as seen in The Spy Who Came In From the Cold just a few years later. (Le Carre’s The Tailor of Panama spins an updated version of the same basic story.) The big difference between the two is tone: Our Man in Havana is a lampoon of international espionage games and the gullible officers running Britain’s MI6 like a old boy’s club. Everyone on their honor and all that. Alec Guinness is Jim Wormold, the meek British everyman in Batista’s Cuba and a single father trying to keep his pretty teenage daughter safe from the wolves prowling the streets of Havana. Reluctantly drafted by a British Secret Service agent (perfectly droll Noel Coward), he finds it’s a veritable cash cow as long he can fabricate fictional reports from phantom agents.
There’s a smart wit to Greene’s script, which Guinness and the cast play perfectly, and plenty of humor at the expense of gullible intelligence officers. But the film takes a darker turn when the fantasies spun by Wormold take root in the spy community, leaving real victims in its wake and making our man in Havana a target of enemy agents. Reed deftly directs Greene’s dryly witty dialogue and brings a snap to the repartee, and he brings a very real sense of danger to the climax, where Wormold has to face the dangers he’s brought down on himself. Burl Ives is as an apolitical doctor caught in the middle of the shenanigans, Ernie Kovacs is perfectly sleazy as a corrupt Cuban officer with eyes for Wormold’s daughter, Ralph Richardson is dryly officious as the head of British intelligence and Maureen O’Hara is the secretary he sends to Cuba to help the hapless Wormold manage his growing (and entirely fictional) stable of informants and agents. The tone is inconsistent but the atmosphere is marvelous. Reed shot on location in Havana and fills the film with scenes in the streets and bars and exclusive retreats of the very wealthy. And while he doesn’t directly comment on the politics of Cuba, the corruption and totalitarian power of the government and its police (as embodied by Kovaks) are suggested in comments tossed off in the course of banter. The CinemaScope production is well mastered and looks crisp and clean.
For more views and reviews:
Our Man in Havana:
Dave Kehr delves into the Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers DVD releases this week in his “Critics Choice” column at the New York Times.
Glenn Erickson’s review of Our Man in Havana at DVD Savant.
Richard Jameson’s 1972 review of the original release of Gumshoe.
Vincent Canby’s New York Times review from 1971.
Matt Rovner’s essay on Arch Oboler, with a couple of paragraphs dedicated to Five.
John M. Miller’s feature on Five at Turner Classic Movies.
Glenn Erickson’s review of Five at DVD Savant.