by Mel Valentin
Directed by Carol Reed ("Oliver!," "The Third Man," "The Fallen Idol," "Odd Man Out") and written by novelist, essayist, critic, and screenwriter Graham Greene ("The Quiet American," "The Third Man," "The Heart of the Matter"), "Our Man in Havana" is a sly, subversive satire of Great Power politics and corrupt, authoritarian governments. Remarkably, Reed was given permission by Fidel Castro’s radical nationalist government, newly ensconced in power, to film on location in Cuba. Even then, Reed and Greene were forced to make close to 40 changes in the screenplay to assuage the Castro regime’s concerns, a harbinger of the repressive policies Castro was moving to implement against the political opposition. That aside, "Our Man in Havana" is as entertaining today as it was back in 1959, the year of its release.Havana, Cuba, pre-revolution. Jim Wormold (Alec Guinness), a British expatriate living in Cuba, makes a modest living selling vacuum cleaners from his slightly dilapidated shop. Other than his precocious teenage daughter, Milly (Jo Morrow), Wormold doesn’t have much else going on. He’s still recovering from the loss of his wife, who up and left him for another man. Wormold spends his ample free time in cafes with his best friend, Dr. Hasselbacher (Burl Ives), a German expatriate gone to seed. Wormold has one problem, though. He wants to provide Milly with clothes and a private education, but doesn’t have the resources. Closer to home, Wormold has to contend with Captain Segura (Ernie Kovacs), a corrupt local police officer with a lascivious eye on Molly.
"If you dug "The Third Man," you'll dig this one."
Enter Hawthorne (Noel Coward), a dapper, umbrella-carrying Brit who strolls into Wormold’s shop. Hawthorne isn’t shopping for a vacuum cleaner, of course. Hawthorne is on a mission from Her Majesty’s Secret Service (a/k/a British intelligence). Hawthorne is looking for a few good men to become the eyes and ears of the British Crown in Cuba. Wormold shows little interest and exhibits even less patriotism toward queen and country, but Hawthorne’s offer of a monthly stipend proves too difficult to resist. In short order, Wormold is treating Molly to a shopping spree, and, at her behest, joins an exclusive country club.
But Hawthorne’s superiors in London, specifically 'C' (Ralph Richardson), want results for their monetary outlay. Threatened with losing his monthly stipend, Wormold does what any desperate man is likely to do: he prevaricates, fabricating an elaborate fiction of agents spread across Cuba with Wormold as their controller. Wormold goes further, sketching a futuristic-looking secret base and passing it off as reality. Hawthorne has doubts, but keeps them to himself. C sends Wormold his own personal secretary, Beatrice Severn (Maureen O'Hara), who, of course, expects to meet his agents and participate in Wormold’s espionage activities. Wormold’s idiosyncratic activities have also raised his profile with Captain Segura and the representatives of an unnamed foreign power eager to frustrate the British government's plans in the Caribbean.
While Our Man in Havana looks, at least superficially, like a standard-issue espionage thriller, Reed and Greene aren’t interested in simply playing up or to genre conventions. Instead, Reed and Greene wanted to craft a contemporary satire of Great Power politics and in that, they succeeded. Greene’s reputation as a literary novelist as opposed to a pulp writer was, if anything, well deserved. Greene used genre conventions as a means to explore ethical, moral, religious, and political issues, all through a skeptical, humanist perspective that saw folly in idealism and ideology. As a perceptive, pragmatic critic of Great Power politics with real-world experience (Green served in the British spy service during WWII), it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Greene foresaw the failure of American involvement in Vietnam in his 1955 novel, The Quiet American (filmed twice, in 1958 and 2002), years before the United States became militarily engaged in Vietnam.
As political satire, Our Man in Havana doesn’t disappoint, but Reed and Greene’s film also succeeds as compelling entertainment, thanks, in part, to Alec Guinness’ understated performance as the beleaguered, opportunistic, occasionally befuddled Wormold. Comedian/actor Ernie Kovacs, known mostly for his pioneering television work, is perfectly cast as the amoral, licentious, lecherous Captain Segura. The Segura role fit Kovacs’ pre-sexual revolution, libido-driven persona. Playwright Noel Coward and theater actor Ralph Richardson also shine in supporting roles as Wormold’s erstwhile controller and the head of the British spy agency, respectively. Maureen O’Hara, relegated to the obligatory romantic interest, holds her own in every scene she shares with Guinness. Likewise with Burl Ives’, who plays his role as the German doctor with weary, downbeat cynicism.Although "Our Man in Havana" isn't on the same level as "The Third Man" or "The Quiet American," the end result keeps the satire just broad enough to indict the former regime's excesses, while also critiquing the meddling machinations of the Great Powers (the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, and, of course, the Soviet Union) and it does so through the droll wit and the black humor that’s quintessentially British and spot on in the targets it skewers, leaving neither governments nor individuals behind.
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originally posted: 10/20/06 17:56:47