(United Kingdom, 1959, 111 minutes, b^w, 16mm)
Carol Reed's 1959 film Our Man in Havana bridges the two major types of early Cold War foreign affairs cinema. One way of understanding international intrigue on the screen from 1948 to 1965 was sincere, dour, and generally insufferable. Films like Berlin Express, and The Ugly American were movies in which conscientious heroes were continually knitting their brows and tapping out their pipes as they solved the problems of the insignificant or destitute country they had been called to redeem. These are films that are talky without being witty, films which, for all their good intentions, seemed to leave audiences more muddled about Cold War issues than they had been when they walked into the theater.
Then there were those films of genuine wit which made the Cold War a pretext for adolescent shenanigans. The Bond films were certainly the most marvelously irresponsible of these films. Together with their many imitators and parodies (sometimes it was hard to tell the difference) such as the Michael Caine vehicle The Ipcress File, The President's Analyst, and the films built around James Coburn's Derek Flint character, these films severely undercut the morbid seriousness of much Cold War culture, with their implications that the whole thing was about as profound as a cricket match. These screwball spy films, with their casual violence and adolescent sexism, offered much that was fun, but little that was analytical about the world of brinkmanship and mutually assured destruction their audiences lived in.
Our Man in Havana, on the other hand, is far closer to the world of novelists Grahame Greene, Eric Ambler, and, later, John LeCarre, writers whose work frequently dealt with the ambiguous loyalties and complicated ethics of a business built on lying. These films' spies are reluctant, even bumbling, and their attitudes toward the political differences which brought about the Cold War are ambivalent. That is to say, these films were reminiscent of the Cold War itself. There are few films like Our Man in Havana, few films with its sense of humorous detachment and ennui. Among them are Journey into Fear, by Orson Welles (although the film was signed by Norman Foster), from the novel by Ambler, and Welles' Mr. Arkadin. There were others; Joseph Mankiewicz's Five Fingers, Martin Ritt's adaptation of LeCarre's The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, and Alfred Hitchcock's neglected Torn Curtain.
Together, Greene and Reed had made The Fallen Idol in 1948, a film marked by an intensity of deadly anxiety, and a baroque visual style which perfectly exemplified this state of ambivalence. The Third Man had followed the next year, an anguished, bitter tale of betrayal whose hero, one Holly Martens doesn't want to save the world, and isn't very good at it, anyway. The Third Man would be the most legendary entry in Reed's filmography, and one of the most influential films about international affairs ever made. It was a masterwork by any standard, but particularly because it represented an almost perfect division of labor between screenwriter and director. Greene and Reed's anti-heroic protagonists frequently suffered from a surfeit of knowledge; by learning something they didn't want to know, they were transformed into people they themselves couldn't recognize by the end of the story.
Our Man in Havana was the last of the great Reed/Greene collaborations, and like the others, began as a screen original -- though not with Carol Reed in mind. Greene started the film as a scenario to be directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, the Brazilian director who had moved from documentary to fiction filmmaking in the 1940's. Greene set the story in Estonia, in the murky Baltic; as he intended it, the film was to be about a harried English spy providing false information to his government during World War II in order to fuel the lavish spending habits of his wife. By the time he came to make the film with Reed, events had made Cuba compelling as a location; besides, Greene preferred setting his fictions in the tropics, where the overheated air and stereotyped sensuality of his surroundings helped him create some of his most sinister effects. As Greene put it, "The reader could feel no sympathy for a man who was cheating his country in Hitler's day... However in fantasic Havana, among the absurdities of the Cold War... There was a situation allowably comic."
The company was allowed to shoot in Havana, filming primarily exteriors, but also some shots involving the principals, for five weeks. Cuba's capital had until recently been the home of dictator Fulgencio Batista, but the city had recently fell to the revolution led by Fidel Castro. The rebels welcomed Reed's film; one is tempted to credit Castro with an agreeable appreciation for what Green called "the absurdities of the Cold War."
The film stars Alec Guinness as Jim Wormold, and it is casting which perfectly fits Greene's uncomfortable, unwilling design for a hero. As Wormold, Guinness is bemused and ineffectual. Guinness had made a series of masterful comedies for England's Ealing Studios in the late 1940's and early 1950's, and he imports the alarmed naivete of films like the Alexander Mackendrick's The Man in the White Suit to his role in Our Man in Havana.
But for all its sharp casting, including Maureen O'Hara, cast against type, and Ernie Kovacs in a role he was born to play, finally, Our Man in Havana is pointedly and intentionally confusing about the issues involved in the Cold War conflict between us and them, and it asks -- just who does the "our" really refer to?
The following is taken from a review that appears on the website of Britmovie.co.uk:
Like The Third Man [which was also directed by Carol Reed and based on a story by Graham Greene], Our Man in Havana was an "entertainment" picture, consisting of Greene’s familiar casserole of sly wit, intricately plotted melodrama and social squalor—all of it lightly topped with a sprinkling of holy water. A snug arrangement between Columbia Pictures and Kingsmead, a company Reed had formed himself, provided for financing and distribution. An international cast was assembled, including Alec Guinness, Maureen O’Hara, Noel Coward and Burl Ives. Still, Havana remained problematical for a time due to the political instability of Cuba. The fall of the Batista government in 1959 proved to be a blessing for Reed and his associates, who, with little difficulty, were able to secure permission from the victorious rebels to shoot their movie in Havana. The movie’s exterior shots were completed over a five week period, with Cubans gawking raptly at the famous Anglo faces and Ernie Kovacs reportedly smoking twenty-five Cuban cigars every day. Back in England, at Shepperton Studios, about eleven weeks went into interior shots.
Greene had originally conceived the plot of Havana for the Anglo-Brazilian director Alberto Cavalcanti, working up a one page synopsis for a tale about an English secret agent in Estonia during the Second World War who was selling his government false information. But Cavalcanti rejected the treatment and Greene eventually switched the story to Havana in the late 1950s because, as he has explained, "the reader could feel no sympathy for a man who was cheating his country in Hitler’s day."
Most readers could probably deduce that Havana, with its knowing recipe of intrigue, comedy and romantic interest and its picturesque setting was intended for the screen. Apart from the greater degree of luridness in the book (and a few additional episodes), the plot does not undergo any unusual sea changes in its movie version. James Wormold (Alec Guinness), an unassuming vacuum cleaner salesman in Havana with an expensive daughter, is recruited by Hawthorne (Noel Coward), a British spy, to collect information of political or military importance in Havana and pass it along for British intelligence. The spoof of cloak-and-daggering is lovingly realized in Reed’s film…. In Greene’s droll conceit, the umbrella-toting Hawthorne is the antithesis of an unobtrusive secret agent. When we first encounter him, shortly after the film begins, he is striding forcefully through the languorous Latin streets with a small band of musicians trailing along behind him. He is impeccably overdressed in a black suit that couldn't be less appropriate for the Cuban climate. In a later scene, he forces Wormold into a rendezvous in the men’s room at the local country club and camouflages their dialogue by turning all the faucets on. The scene’s Freudian subtext of ‘unnatural acts’ is exceptionally bold for a film made under the old Production Code, [given] Coward’s well-known homosexuality….
From this witty opening, Reed and Greene continue to direct their rapiers at the vaunted English spy system, pinking it exquisitely throughout the film. Its obsession with secrecy is chaffed not only through the flamboyantly obtrusive Coward, but also in the cumbersome use of code names like ‘59200 stroke 5’, the appellation which Hawthorne assigns Wormold and by which he is invariably identified. In a witty visual thrust at the same circumlocutions, Hawthorne carefully closes a gate with a few insignificant slats as a preface to disclosing some top secret information. Perceiving an opportunity to shore up his meagre income, Wormold recruits imaginary sub-agents, choosing the names at random from members of the local country club, and pockets the salaries which London compliantly issues. To earn his pay, he simply files reports from government documents. Coward and his superior, "C" (Ralph Richardson) are intoxicated by these "vital revelations" and congratulate one another about their "man in Havana"….
There are very few Reed films without a police inspector or detective, if only because he made so many thrillers, and Havana is no exception. Here the constabulary role is fulfilled by Captain Segura (Ernie Kovacs), a cigar-puffing officer who suspects Wormold of espionage activity and harasses him throughout the movie in one fashion or another. Kovacs, one of the top comedians of the era until his premature death in 1962, surprised everyone with his masterly performance, disappearing so completely into Segura that only his immortal cigar still protrudes. Thus, Captain Segura is intelligent and crafty and his comedic moments seem intentional. To be sure, Segura fits the corrupt/tyrannical stereotype of a Caribbean strongman ("There are two classes of people: those who can be tortured and those who can’t," he announces), yet he displays other personae too. Enamoured of Wormold’s daughter Milly (Jo Morrow), he courts her in gentlemanly fashion….Milly is played by Jo Morrow, a soon- to-be-forgotten starlet of 1960. Morrow is nothing more than a perky pin-up girl; there’s nothing about her to love except her looks.
Reed’s direction and Greene’s screenplay merge so smoothly that the film’s motifs and assumptions seem fully shared by both men, though we know each leaned in his own creative direction. There are noteworthy elements in Havana for which Reed is obviously the likely source, the off-angle camera shots, one of his lynchpins, are used to good effect. There is so much unusual and unrelated activity in the background of some of Reed’s scenes that we often grow curious about these stories too.
The following is taken from a literary travel article by Frank Gray, "Havana: The Ghost Town of Graham Greene," which appeared in the Financial Times (London), August 21, 1993:
It is still just a seven-minute walk from the Phastcleaners shop on Lamparilla Street, Havana, to the Wonder Bar at the corner of Virtudes and Consulado—the same time it took Jim Wormold to escape from his vacuum-cleaner agency for a mid-day daiquiri with his old friend, Dr Hasselbacher. Wormold, anti-hero of Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, was impaired by a limp and, given the traffic that must have prevailed in late 1950s Havana, seven minutes must have been a close-run thing. Today there is little traffic to slow the curious visitor, but it is still a brisk walk, made all the more difficult because of the distraction of finding traces of Wormold’s Havana 35 years after publication of Greene’s novel.
Such landmarks are not easy to find, given the Cuban capital’s neglected state and the preponderance of tin sheets covering the windows and entrance-ways to the city’s once-infamous nightspots. But there are some pleasant surprises, for a few beacons have survived to make the curious visitor, armed with a street map, ballpoint pen and Greene’s Penguin paperback, feel he is getting somewhere. Greene’s Havana centered on the shopping and banking thoroughfares of the old district, with a few amusing diversions into uptown Vedado, location of then-swank hotels, and into the classy neighbourhoods of Miramar….
Trying to find any trace of Phastcleaners, or any shop selling conventional retail goods, is impossible today. Lamparilla Street, running east to the waterfront, is paralleled by Obrapia, Obispo and O’Reilly, a hive of activity in Wormold’s day, but now a neighbourhood through which people walk but do not stop because there is little to stop for. The Western Union cable office is still on Obispo, whence Wormold sent his fraudulent cables to MI-6 in London. And the bells still toll at the Church of Santo Cristo, off Lamparilla, where Wormold’s expensive daughter Milly said her prayers….
One of Wormold’s haunts on that daily trek for the mid-day daiquiri was the famous Sloppy Joes, better known as Loppy Youse in Cuban lingo. It was there that Wormold was recruited by Hawthorne, MI-6’s inept Caribbean control. It was founded in the 1930s by two Spanish brothers, one named Jose, who became renowned for his unwashed off-white shirts. A rival Sloppy Joes was set up in Key West, Florida, 90 miles the other side of the Gulf Stream, a few years later. The original, alas, folded in the late 1960s due to the post-revolution collapse of tourism and is now sealed up. One can only draw on the memory of the meeting in Sloppy Joes in the Alec Guinness-Noel Coward film in which Coward (Hawthorne) recruits Guinness (Wormold) into the world of spying….
But one aspect of pre-Castro life has not changed—the famous floor show at the Tropicana, the open-air, jungle-motif night-club on the edge of the leafy Miramar district. It was at the Tropicana, amid the dazzle of dancing girls, that Wormold helped his daughter celebrate her birthday, at the same time protecting her from the unsubtle groping of the evil Captain Segura of the Havana police department with the help of his MI-6 cypher clerk, Beatrice Severn.
Our Man in Havana received Best Comedy at the 1960 Golden Globe Awards.
— Compiled by Mark Koplik, NYS Writers Institute
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