Our Man in Havana/1959/Kingsmead Productions, Columbia Pictures Corp./111 min.
“Our Man in Havana,” a dark 1959 comedy starring Alec Guinness, was the third and final film that British thriller writer Graham Greene and director Carol Reed made together. Their first was 1948’s “The Fallen Idol.” Their masterpiece was “The Third Man” (1949).
“Our Man in Havana,” about spying and murder and vacuum cleaners in pre-revolutionary Cuba, is not as suspenseful as “The Third Man” and, even as a comedy, it’s not all that funny. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad film or even a mediocre one.
“Our Man” is just not as good as we want it to be, not as good as the deliciously tense, scathingly witty and beautifully sad “The Third Man,” which boasts a wonderful cast, gorgeous cinematography by Robert Krasker and that haunting zither music by Anton Karas. At least one group of British critics selected “The Third Man” as the finest British picture of all time.
But perhaps we expect too much from “Our Man” and miss what’s there: a good amount of intelligence, wit, suspense, romance, political savvy, elegant Havana-location photography by Oswald Morris and a pretty wonderful, if uneven, cast. Guinness, as Wormold, the vacuum cleaner salesman turned reluctant spy, joins Ralph Richardson and Noel Coward as the maladroit spymasters who hire and employ him; Maureen O’Hara, as his affair-minded assistant spy; Burl Ives as Wormold’s best friend, Dr. Hasselbacher; and Ernie Kovacs as the urbane, sadistic Cuban head cop, Captain Segura, who’s in love with Wormold’s daughter Milly (Jo Morrow).
The time of “Our Man in Havana” is the 1950s, with Cuba under the Batista regime. Wormold is a typical guilt-ridden Greene character and Guinness plays him with some of the introverted whimsy he put into the role of the fussy inventor in “The Man in the White Suit.” Light on cash, Wormold allows himself to be recruited by a local MI6 agent named Hawthorne (Coward). Hawthorne asks Wormold to put together a spy team for MI6, which is run back in England by the dithering “C” (Richardson). Wormold, who has no experience and no contacts, hits on the stratagem of simply making up an agent list and writing phony reports – along with the plans for what looks like fictional weaponry but is actually one of his vacuum cleaners.
So convincing are all Wormold’s fantasies and absurd inventions that MI6 wants more and sends him a helper (O’Hara), to gather more of his non-intelligence. But there is a real world of spies and killers operating in Batista’s Cuba, and soon some of them are after Wormold, with real murder on their minds. Like “The Third Man,” the plot plunges a naïve but imaginative amateur into a political game that turns deadly serious in a dark, corrupt city that is filled with criminals and deceptions.
The movie was shot on location in Havana, in Castro’s post-revolutionary Cuba although the novel, published in 1958, was set in Batista’s Cuba and that may have created a problem. Greene’s and Reed’s Havana never seems as real or as sinister as their Vienna in “The Third Man.”
There are two bits of miscasting. Burl Ives doesn’t have the accent for Hasselbacher and he plays his one mournful note too dolorously. And Jo Morrow can’t make you think she’s a British teenager (even when Wormold “explains” that she picked up her accent in America).
Most of this unusually talented cast, though, seems to be having fun, especially Guinness, Coward and Richardson – and, more surprisingly, Ernie Kovacs, who’s so good he makes you forget he isn’t Cuban and doesn’t seem at first to belong in a Graham Greene movie.
The biggest joke of Greene and Reed’s last film though, is that the plot is based on real life. Greene (a WWII spy before he became a writer) heard a story about a Spanish spy for the Nazis named Garbo who did exactly what Wormold did: invented a whole fictional spy team and submitted fictitious reports to his gullible employers. That tale clearly appealed to Greene, master of thrillers and deception – a good Catholic, albeit with sins on his conscience.
Sony Pictures recently released “Our Man in Havana” on DVD.