by Matt Levine
As much Ealing Studios as it is John le Carré (with a dash of Dr. Strangelove thrown in), Our Man in Havana simultaneously indulges and lampoons spy-movie tropes, positing international intrigue in the modern age as both deadly and ridiculous. Alec Guinness stars as James Wormold (a surname which would certainly be at home in an Ealing comedy), a British ex-pat living in Havana and eking out a living as a vacuum-cleaner salesman. The opening titles proudly inform us that the film was shot on location in Cuba “before the recent revolution”; in fact, production took place only two months after Fidel Castro’s coup overthrew notorious dictator Fulgencio Batista (an accommodating Castro even visited the set one day). As with the Belfast-set Odd Man Out (1947) and the Vienna-set The Third Man (1949), director Carol Reed makes the most out of his exotic locale, accentuating the steamy eroticism and kinetic energy of the Cuban environs (both of which pair nicely with the very British drollery).
Director: Carol Reed
Producer: Carol Reed
Writer: Graham Greene
Cinematographer: Oswald Morris
Editor: Bert Bates
Music: Frank Deniz, Laurence Deniz
Cast: Alec Guinness, Burl Ives, Maureen O’Hara, Ernie Kovacs, Noël Coward, Ralph Richardson, Jo Morrow, Gregoire Aslan, Paul Rogers
Premiere: December 30, 1959 – UK
US Theatrical Release: January 27, 1960
US Distributor: Columbia Pictures
This pairing of a torrid setting and understated comedy commences with the opening credits: feverish flamenco music plays over a lascivious exchange of lustful glances between a pair of strangers on the street, followed by the arrival of a dapper British gentleman tailed by a zealous group of musicians. In sublime English fashion, the stranger can only respond to their musical accompaniment with a polite “No thank you.” He turns out to be Hawthorne (Noël Coward), a British Secret Intelligence agent on the lookout for Cuban agents to keep MI6 apprised of suspicious goings-on. Hawthorne spots his man when he stumbles into Wormold’s shop; shortly thereafter, in a hilarious rendezvous in a hotel bathroom, Hawthorne nonchalantly invites Wormold into the world of Cold War espionage. (When a concierge intrudes into the bathroom, Wormold frets, “He might’ve recognized my legs under the door. Do you think we ought to change trousers?”) The promise of a hefty stipend convinces Wormold to agree—especially considering his expensive teenage daughter, Milly (Jo Morrow), who has already attracted the attentions of a salacious Cuban commandant named Segura (Ernie Kovacs)—though the mild-mannered vacuum salesman clearly doesn’t know what he’s getting into.
A jovial German doctor named Hasselbacher (Burl Ives) convinces Wormold to take advantage of MI6’s lucrative offer by accepting their money and supplying them with false reports—after all, Hisselbacher claims, considering how asinine geopolitics are in an atomic age where apocalypse might arrive at the touch of a button, why not exploit governments’ rampaging paranoia? Wormold agrees with unnerving eagerness, concocting a horde of nonexistent “agents” based on acquaintances he makes in Havana—an anxious engineer and an alluring stripper are among his so-called contacts. Wormold’s fantasies are conveyed by some clever split-screen effects, as he types out reports to home office that are blatantly inspired by hackneyed espionage novels. Eventually, carried away by his own fertile imagination, Wormold draws up a series of “blueprints” of new atomic-age weaponry—in fact simply designs for the newest models of vacuum cleaners—which British intelligence construes as a legitimate threat against domestic security. They send a secretary (Maureen O’Hara) and radioman (Timothy Bateson) to Havana to assist Wormold, requiring him to go to even greater efforts to maintain his belabored secret-agent façade.
The film’s emphasis is on comedy, but as both MI6 and their international enemies construe Wormold’s H-bomb drawings as the newest catastrophic threat, real-life corpses begin piling up. No one is more shocked than Wormold when a “Captain Montez”—the entirely fictional informant he had concocted as the blueprints’ creator—is killed mysteriously in a car accident. Wormold soon becomes a target of international assassins himself, notably at a political luncheon where a poisoned plate of food is passed dizzyingly down a banquet table. Our Man in Havana tries to balance wry, absurdist humor with a somber recognition that Wormold’s spy-movie fantasies have lethal consequences; the contradiction makes the movie slightly uneven, but even this bipolar tonality is intriguing. After all, the movie suggests, isn’t the outdated notion of patriotic espionage both amusing and depressing?
Our Man in Havana was adapted by Graham Greene from his own novel, though its filmic translation becomes considerably lighter than the source material: perhaps Greene recognized that such a storyline played out onscreen would inherently seem ridiculous. It’s to Greene’s credit that he’s able to dilute the action-thriller template of his novel into a parodic film version that remains surprisingly thrilling: when Wormold eventually does take up arms against his would-be killer, leading to an atmospheric chase through Havana’s cobblestone courtyards, it’s as suspenseful as some of the earlier sequences are humorous. As with Greene’s previous collaborations with director Carol Reed—they had also worked together on The Fallen Idol (1948) and The Third Man—it’s hard to tell where the writer’s contributions end and the director’s begin, subverting the auterist assumption that the director is ultimately responsible for the shape and tone of the finished film. (One hilarious example has Hawthorne closing a door while he and Wormold converse covertly—though the door is comprised of only a few bamboo shoots, providing no secrecy whatsoever. It’s impossible to tell whether this was Reed’s or Greene’s idea.) Such shared artistry shouldn’t be read as a criticism: cinema is always a collaborative effort, and in the Reed-Greene films, each artist found an ideal counterpart to inspire and reinforce the other.
That being said, Reed’s stylistic imprint on Our Man in Havana shouldn’t be understated. While Greene’s clever wordplay and breakneck plotting typically predominate—a verbal agility bolstered by the performers’ rapid, almost screwball-comedy delivery—Reed’s characteristically skewed visuals emphasize the film’s conception of a world out of joint. The canted frames and vertiginous high-angle views familiar from Odd Man Out and The Third Man reappear, yet they’re subtly embellished; a number of tracking shots begin linearly, only to topple into a diagonal viewpoint mid-motion. In one scene, Wormold’s daughter Milly begins to descend the stairs, causing the camera to teeter over and practically collapse while it leans to watch her descent—a disorienting camera movement that seems like a new aesthetic development in Reed’s style.
At times, Our Man in Havana conveys its pacifistic platitudes didactically, as when Wormold’s colleague, Beatrice Severn, asks, “Would everything be in the mess it’s in if men were loyal to love and not to countries?” The dialogue might be too on-the-nose, but given the film’s 1959 release date and its Cuban setting (this was only a year and a half before the Bay of Pigs invasion), such a straightforward urgency takes on greater sociohistorical significance. And in any case, for much of its running time, Our Man in Havana’s commentary is lithe and comedic, turning nuclear war into fodder for wry satire in much the same way Dr. Strangelove would four years later (albeit less audaciously). From subtle sight gags (like an advertisement for “Nucleaners,” a new model of vacuums which conspicuously contains the word “nuclear”) to pointed critiques (such as the fact that MI6 eventually exonerates and promotes Wormold, even assigning him to teach espionage to British field agents), the film views geopolitics in the atomic age with cynical yet light-footed contempt. Most espionage thrillers, exciting though they might be, treat notions of nationalism and the imminence of terrorism with deadly seriousness. Our Man in Havana is so fed up with Cold War-era discord that it can only treat it with a healthy dose of absurdity.