Sunday, November 23, 2014

Pier 5, Havana (Premium Pictures/United Artists, 1959)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Pier 5, Havana was quite a different kettle of fish politically: I had wanted to watch it largely on the strength of the TCM synopsis: “An American in Cuba tries to thwart a bombing plot aimed at Castro.” Made in 1959, just after the Cuban revolution succeeded and Fidel Castro took over — driving out the kleptocratic U.S.-supported dictator Fulgencio Batista — Pier 5, Havana sounded from that synopsis that the filmmakers were portraying Castro and his revolutionary government as the good guys and the Batistanos who were trying to stage a counter-revolution and retake control as the bad guys — and the original poster for the film, reproduced on its page, made it clear that that was exactly their intent. The poster advertised the movie as “The Screen’s First Bombshell Out of Newly-Freed Cuba!” This was, of course, before the U.S. party line changed dramatically and Fidel Castro became at least the third most terrible man in the world (after Khrushchev and Mao), and instead of welcoming his revolution we imposed an embargo on the island that has lasted to this day (albeit with occasional modifications) and which has provided Fidel and his brother and successor, Raúl Castro, with a ready-made excuse every time anything goes wrong with the Cuban economy. Aside from the novelty of its politics, Pier 5, Havana is a pretty ordinary late-noir thriller, though with at least two improvements over Hong Kong Confidential: Cameron Mitchell, its star, is a considerably better actor than Gene Barry, and he gets to deliver the narration himself in first-person, thanks to the screenwriter’s (Robert E. Kent himself, under the pseudonym “James B. Gordon,” adapting a story by Joseph Hoffman) decision to use that classic noir device to get us closer to the central character.

Mitchell plays Steve Daggett, world-weary adventurer who finds himself in Havana and is almost immediately asked to leave by several people close to a mysterious plot centering around a speedboat workshop owned by a mysterious character named Schluss. It’s annoying that the name is pronounced similarly to “slush” instead of the long double-“o” sound that “u” would have in German, and it’s even more annoying that the actor who plays him, Otto Waldis, can’t seem to make up his mind whether to channel Erich von Stroheim or S. Z. Sakall. Daggett eventually discovers that the factory is a front for a planned terrorist attack on key locations throughout Cuba (the giveaway is a map of the island with all the targets circled), and working together, he and the Cuban police official Lt. Garcia (Michael Granger, who despite his Anglo name is actually quite convincing as a Latino) uncover the plot and trace it to Fernando Ricardo (Eduardo Noriega), whom Daggett’s girlfriend Monica Gray (Allison Hayes) had left him for years earlier because Fernando was a sweeter sugar daddy than Daggett could ever be. (At least there isn’t a female rival for Daggett’s affections the way there for Reed in Hong Kong Confidential — the jealousy schtick in that movie really weighted it down.) Oddly, though Pier 5, Havana is thematically more noir than Hong Kong Confidential, it’s considerably plainer and less atmospheric visually; the cinematographer, Maury Gertsman, simply doesn’t shoot this film (especially the action scenes) with the power of Kenneth Peach’s work in Hong Kong Confidential. Also, Cuba was largely “played” by Santa Monica, and in a bit of sloppiness the editor (uncredited on, for pretty obvious reasons) left in a short glimpse of the famous sign at the entrance to the Santa Monica pier, which not only identifies it as such but is, of course, in English.

Pier 5, Havana was out of circulation for decades, and an contributor mentioned the rumor that when the U.S.’s official policy towards Castro’s Cuba became relentless opposition and a blockade in hopes it would bring down Castro’s government (so much so that Castro requested “defensive” missiles from the Soviet Union, and a reluctant Khrushchev complied, leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 and Khrushchev’s removal of the missiles in exchange for U.S. assurances that they wound never again attempt a covert operation to remove Castro the way they had at the Bay of Pigs in 1961), the government bought up the negative and all prints of this movie to have it suppressed. That turned out to be untrue — United Artists merely withdrew it from distribution once it became “politically incorrect” and it’s only now slipped back into circulation courtesy of TCM, which has shown packages of Edward Cahn’s 1950’s “B”’s before (I remember on their last go-round, during which they actually named Cahn “Director of the Month,” one they ran called The Music Box Kid, which was quite exciting even though it was a pretty ordinary 1920’s-period gangster tale — the title refers to a young Mob hit man who nicknames his Thompson submachine gun his “music box”). Like most of them, Pier 5, Havana is a workmanlike but unoriginal movie — but still it’s nice to know that for one brief shining moment it was actually possible for a Hollywood studio to make a movie in which the Castro government of Cuba was on the side of good and the bad guys were the Right-wing terrorists trying to overthrow it!