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Novelist and real-life intelligence operative Graham Greene had a knack for living in exotic locations just before they became international hot spots, whether in Africa or in the Far East. In 1958 Joseph L. Mankiewicz mangled Greene's Vietnam-set The Quiet American, inverting the author's message about C.I.A. meddling overseas. For the Cuban-set Our Man in Havana Greene took a personal hand and wrote the screenplay himself. Carol Reed's production for Columbia sent Alec Guinness and an all-star cast to film in Castro's Cuba. As a major subplot indicts the corrupt, murderous police force of dictator Fulgencio Batista, Reed had few if any problems getting permission from the revolutionary government. Oswald Morris' CinemaScope cameras take full advantage of the local atmosphere.
Although beloved by fans of film espionage, Our Man in Havana was not a big hit. It's an uneven satire about politics and espionage that contrasts a realistic view of conditions in a police state with understated British comedy. The tone veers from deadly intrigue to near slapstick, and Greene's dialogue tries for too many verbal puns. Alec Guinness's mild mannered vacuum cleaner salesman doesn't always seem the right character for the mix. He's endearing though, and so is the movie. It's The Third Man in tropical attire, drinking a daiquiri.
Latin rhythms dominate as we meet the cast on a sunny day in Havana, sometime before the revolution. Englishman Jim Wormold (Guinness) sees little profit from his vacuum cleaner store and wonders how to give his daughter Milly (Jo Morrow) the country club luxuries she seems to require. His answer comes from Hawthorne (Noél Coward), an old-school intelligence operative who enlists Wormold to organize local contacts and collect information for the crown. Wormold fails to operate in any competent way, but he likes the pay. He invents a string of imaginary agents and pockets their monthly pay packets. Asked to "get results", he fabricates a non-existent secret "construction" in the Cuban mountains. To Wormold's dismay, London sends him an administrative assistant, agent Beatrice Severn (Maureen O'Hara). Soon Wormold is in a triple bind. While he tries to hide the truth from the attractive Beatrice, a real and dangerous adversary appears, opposition agent Carter (Paul Rogers). Wormold's friend Hasselbacher (Burl Ives) a German doctor, is beginning to act suspiciously as well. Even worse, daughter Milly has attracted the amorous attentions of Police Captain Segura (Ernie Kovacs), a brutal torturer known as "The Red Vulture".
Our Man in Havana is a satire on British spy practices that Graham Greene knew well; he'd seen agents commended for turning in false reports to pad their expense accounts. Greene also made plenty of Wormold-like silly mistakes, like locking his secret codebooks in a safe and then not being able to locate the combination. But much of his story is quite serious. Pre-Castro Havana is a city where anything can happen, much like Vienna of The Third Man. The threat posed by Captain Segura is a historical reality, as Batista's secret police operated like gangsters, not even bothering bother to disguise their tortures and murders. At one point Wormold asks Captain Segura if his cigarette case is the one he's heard about, "the one made of human skin."
But the comedy veers in strange directions. Wormold engages in serious heartfelt talks with his daughter Milly, and then has failed, near-slapstick attempts trying to enlist agents. When Wormold follows one prospect into a men's room, the guy gets the wrong idea about his intentions. Wormold draws up a fake sketch of the supposed secret base in the hills, making it look just like one of his vacuum cleaners. Spies attempt to poison Wormold at a business luncheon, a scene that's quite humorous until a little dachshund drinks the liquor intended for Our Man. The film sometimes seems a black comedy in the Ealing tradition, but more often comes off as a straight drama.
Events eventually slide into a more serious groove. London believes Wormold's claims, but so do Her Majesty's enemies, and innocent people suspected of being Wormhold's agents show up dead. Wormold does finally use a gun to even the score. Alec Guinness's passive, sometimes uncomprehending attitude makes the mystery into an intellectual game, with some sentimental asides and silly details. Ordinary guy Wormold is a highly unlikely secret agent -- the exotic nighttime streets of Havana are sometimes more real than the characters.
Maureen O'Hara and Alec Guinness meet Fidel during filming.
The high-powered casting doesn't contribute to the clarity either. Noël Coward prances through bars and walkways, followed by a personal orchestra of street musicians. Burl Ives is borderline melancholy as the German doctor, who delivers bad advice and folds up when things don't go well. Maureen O'Hara makes a serviceable romantic interest, but adds little more; Jo Morrow's dates with the creepy Segura don't seem to upset Wormold as much as they should. Ralph Richardson plays the top secret service bureaucrat back in London, the weakest scenes in the picture. Ernie Kovacs is extremely good as the menacing Segura, and the scene where he and Wormold play a drinking game with a chessboard is a winner. 1
Our Man in Havana has an authentic background, expressive direction and interesting characters. Politically astute, it suggests the horrors of Batista's police state without making any statements about the revolution to come. The movie's become a Savant favorite; I've seen and enjoyed it so many times that its minor faults no longer seem evident.
There is strong evidence of editorial tampering in a back street confrontation scene. Wormold shoots once at an adversary and then strolls away, and director Reed probably wanted the violence to remain ambiguous. Some Columbia editor instead cuts in another close-up of Guinness shooting his gun back in his initial position, creating a totally discontinuous mismatch. 2
Sony's Martini Movies presentation of Our Man in Havana looks great in widescreen; until recent cable airings the film has been seen only in poorly pan-scanned copies. The two "martini" themed mini-featurettes are harmless, and an original trailer is included. The package notes call Our Man in Havana a "classic film noir", which only proves that for movie marketers, the "Noir" moniker has now devolved into a meaningless catch-all phrase. Just give it a look-see, you'll love it.
Our Man in Havana was very loosely remade in 2001 as the Pierce Brosnan movie The Tailor of Panama.
Resource: Graham Greene: The Films of His Fiction by Gene D. Philips, S. J.; Teachers College Columbia University 1974.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Segura and Wormold's late night drinking game with a game of checkers -- and the rest of their relationship -- is very similar to a setup in John Huston's We Were Strangers. In that movie Pedro Armendariz plays a corrupt Havana Policeman who has a similar late-night drinking scene with Jennifer Jones. The place is the same but the story takes place in 1933 during the reign of a different dictator. I don't know which source book came first, but the characters and scenes are awfully similar.
2. Columbia imposed another annoying "clarify the shooting" editorial intrusion on Joseph Losey's The Damned (These are the Damned) just the next year. Against the director's will, a shot of a character shooting a gun was added to a key scene, disrupting the flow of images.
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