Born 112 years ago today, the venerable British director Carol Reed (1906-1976) marked his 53rd birthday in noteworthy style with the London world premiere of a distinctively delicious espionage thriller that reunited him with two other English eminences, his The Fallen Idol (1948) and The Third Man (1949) screenwriter Graham Greene and his The Fallen Idol and Outcast of the Islands (1951) star Ralph Richardson. Comedically lighter and geopolitically darker than those two previous outings, Our Man in Havana (1959) offered, due to the timing of its early 1959 production, a fascinating look at Cuba filmed in the wake of Fidel Castro’s revolutionary forces assuming governmental control by overthrowing the corrupt police-state regime of strongman Fulgencio Batista, all as backdrop to a satiric study of expatriate vacuum cleaner salesman-turned-unlikely spy James Wormold (smartly incarnated by recent The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) Academy Award® winner Alec Guinness) recruited by the acutely dapper Hawthorne (Noel Coward) of British Intelligence to ferret out political and military secrets.
As this new espionage gig promises to be lucrative, Wormold gets creative in suctioning his new-found income. Robert F. Moss writes in The Films of Carol Reed: “Perceiving an opportunity to shore up his meager 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’ (Richardson) are intoxicated by these ‘vital revelations’ and congratulate one another about their ‘man in Havana.’ Encouraged by this response, Wormold informs his superiors that he has discovered a gigantic military installation in the mountains, enclosing a blueprint of this ominous construction, which is nothing more than a Brobdingnagian version of one of his vacuum cleaners. Coward and Richardson react with hilarious consternation, assuming that they are gazing at a super-weapon of some kind. Two additional agents, a radio operator (Timothy Bateson) and a secretary (Maureen O’Hara), are dispatched to assist Wormold in this delicate operation. The mood darkens, however, when Wormold becomes the target for an authentic espionage ring, and, after two murders and two additional attempts, the protagonist must become a hero. Greene has made his name an obvious composite of ‘worm’ and ‘mold,’ and, one might say, the Wormold turns: he guns down an enemy agent. In the end, though, back in England the film’s whimsical spirit returns; when the would-be spy has disclosed his duplicity, the agency is too frightened by the prospect of public embarrassment to prosecute him and offers him an OBE and a job instead.”
Others in the cast make strong impressions, particularly Burl Ives (also freshly minted with an Oscar® for 1958’s The Big Country) as Wormold’s philosophical pal Dr. Hasselbacher, who becomes an unfortunate victim due to Wormold’s fabrications; Jo Morrow as Milly, Wormold’s devoted daughter whose expensive tastes fuel her father’s quest for capital; and especially, Ernie Kovacs as the wily Cuban policeman Captain Segura. Moss reflects: “Kovacs, one of the top comedians of his 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. It is another tribute to Reed’s direction that the humor with which Kovacs invests the Segura character is an array of muted Latinisms but with none of the heavy-duty, moustache-preening exaggerations one would expect from a Kovacs TV sketch. 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. Enamored of Wormold’s daughter Milly, he courts her in gentlemanly fashion. In an effort to coax or trick Wormold away from the British side in the spy game, he accepts the latter’s guileful challenge to play checkers with tiny liquor bottles as pieces and a rule that when his player seizes an opponent’s piece, he must drink the bottle. The bibulous results of this game are both funny and essential to the machinery of the plot.”
Even though Reed and Greene styled this as an entertainment, which certainly registers as scenically gorgeous and sinisterly shadowy via the cinematography of the great Oswald Morris, the material can support deeper analyses. “A real ‘winds of change’ film, with traditional values crumbling in the beat of prerevolutionary Cuba,” Time Out Film Guide critic Robert Murphy concluded. “Guinness is wonderful. Discovering an unexpected ability to recognize the real in the game of make-believe, he emerges as master of the situation through the boldness of his fantasies. This mad world, where fictional characters die real deaths and even the Clean-Easy man can’t be trusted, has little in common with Le Carré’s Circus, but as Guinness’ vacuum cleaner salesman/spy sheds his innocence, he becomes dimly recognizable as an early incarnation of mole-catcher Smiley. Graham Greene’s ‘entertainment’ is only gently macabre and the threats never quite materialize, but the film cleverly captures the confusion of optimism, cynicism and money-grubbing greed of the ‘never had it so good’ years.” In raising a daiquiri toast – or perhaps a Guinness – to birthday honoree Reed, we add that Our Man in Havana on a sparkling Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray is available at 33% off original list through Wednesday only.