The Tailor of Panama (2001) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

The recipe: Our Man in Havanama.

Perhaps you've seen some of Sir Carol Reed's movies. His specialty was the post-war spy fable filled with the corrupt and the corruptable, where most principles were, shall we say, flexible. His most famous is The Third Man, which brought Graham Greene's Harry Lime to cinema life as the most corrupt international schemer of them all. Nearly every documentary on cinema history features the famous conversation between Lime and his former college buddy on Vienna's Riesenrad, and Lime's famous rationalization of his corruption:

"In Italy for the years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of peace and democracy, and what did that produce? The Cuckoo Clock!"

Reed made another brilliant, if lesser known film adaptation of a Graham Greene novel, called Our Man in Havana. It featured Alec Guinness as a silly little vacuum cleaner salesman who was offered the riches and prestige of being the inside intelligence man for the U.K. in Cuba. Unfortunately, he didn't know anything or have anything worthwhile to sell, so he just made some stuff up. This worked fine until he saw real lives trapped in the web of lies which he spun. 



Jamie Lee Curtis exposes her breasts very briefly when she invites Rush into her bed. 

Jamie Lee's right nipple is exposed when Brosnan holds her from behind

Catherine McCormack's breast are seen in a very lively sex scene with Brosnan.

Our Man in Havana was a terrific film, balancing ironic comedy with intrigue and moral integrity, and it features many of the great Brit character actors like Noel Coward and Ralph Richardson as well as such unusual foils as Burl Ives and Ernie Kovacs.

The Tailor of Panama movie is based upon precisely the same premise, but with layers of additional cynicism heaped upon it. The vacuum cleaner man is now a tailor with excessive debts and dark secrets in his past. He wants the money and he doesn't want his wife to know the secrets, so he goes along with the seedy MI-6 agent who approaches him. He agrees to supply info about the future of the canal.  He doesn't really know anything worthwhile from his tailoring conversations, so he tries to get info by examining his wife's documents (she works for the president). Finding this equally fruitless, he simply decides to tell the intelligence community what they want to hear.

The corrupt MI-6 agent, played to sleazy perfection by Pierce Brosnan, doesn't really care whether the information is good or bad, just how much of a career boost or a financial profit he can make from it. Up and down the line, nobody in the military and intelligence communities has any concern for the accuracy of their information. Even the guys who aren't in it for personal gain don't want the real stuff. They want the stuff that supports their ideology. 

The fictional details are interwound with real stories just as cynical, in order to support the film's cold eye. For example, CIA director George Bush built up Noreiga as the savior of the canal, a miscalculation so gross that President George Bush later had to invade the damned country to prevent his "savior" from becoming the drug kingpin of the hemisphere. The film effectively shows that Noreiga's claim to the throne was no more or less credible than that of the tottering drunk our poor tailor casts in the role! And like Bush with Noriega, the intelligence officers swear that the drunken stumblebum is their best bet, and is cast of truly presidential timbre, just the guy to keep the current Panamanian administration from selling the canal to the Chinese (another of the tailor's fantasies).

DVD info from Amazon.

  • widescreen anamorphic, 2.35:1

  • alternate ending

  • full-length director's commentary

  • interview with Brosnan and Rush

So the tailor's simple lies lead to some real trouble for his innocent friends, and for the world, because the paranoia in the Pentagon about the future of the canal is enough to justify a military invasion when they think that their latest savior has been taken out by government death squads!

It's very funny in a Dr. Strangelove way, and it's just as clever an international thriller as anyone has made since ... well, since the cold war was still with us, and this stuff was actually important! The story is by John le Carre, the film is directed by the legendary John Boorman (Excalibur, Deliverance), Geoffrey Rush fills in nicely for Alec Guinness, Brosnan is deliciously slimy, and the ending is exactly what I hoped for. 

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: three stars. Ebert 3.5/4, Berardinelli 3/4, Apollo 65.

  • Rotten Tomatoes summary. One of the best of the year so far. 76% positive overall, an an  exceptional 89% from the top critics.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 6.6, Apollo users 74/100. 
  • still in theaters. mediocre box office performance. Domestic gross $13 million. Budget $19 million. 
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a B. A delight for espionage lovers, coming after many dry years. Also entertaining enough for non-genre fans.

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