Fifty-eight years ago this weekend brought the U.S. opening of another anticipated collaboration between writer Graham Greene and director Carol Reed. “Like The Third Man, Our Man in Havana (1959) was an ‘entertainment,’ 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,” according to The Films of Carol Reed chronicler Robert F. Moss. “An international cast was assembled, including Alec Guinness, Maureen O’Hara, Noël Coward and Burl Ives [plus Ernie Kovacs, Ralph Richardson Jo Morrow, Grégoire Aslan and Paul Rogers]. 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 with little difficulty. In exchange for their ‘green card,’ the filmmakers were required to add over 50 Cubans to the cast and crew and submit to regular visits by a government committee, which sought to determine that nothing derogatory was slipped into the film – despite the fact that the screenplay is a condemnation of the ancient régime by a leftist writer. The movie’s exterior shots were completed over a five-week period, with Cubans gawping raptly at the famous Anglo faces and Ernie Kovacs reportedly smoking 25 Cuban cigars everyday. Back in England, at Shepperton Studios, about 11 weeks went into interior shots.”
The basic premise harkened back to tales Greene heard during his World War II service in MI6 counterespionage about an embedded German operative who filed one totally fabricated intelligence report after another to pad his paycheck and maintain his well-heeled lifestyle. After the Cold War came into being, Greene reconceived the story in a new, absurdist light, and the character of mild-mannered, financially-impaired vacuum cleaner salesman/unlikely secret agent James Wormold (Guinness) was born (first in Greene’s 1958 novel), as was the hook to lure audiences to the film, which, as Time’s reviewer observes, “starts out like a conventional Alec Guinness comedy [of which there was a now-established tradition], a wonderfully silly spoof of a spy thriller. But before long, the attentive spectator will understand that Greene, Reed, Guinness & Co. are tickling his ribs with the well-sharpened stiletto of political satire, and he may not entirely relish the situation. The mixture and mayhem and heehaw is particularly tricky to handle, and not even the sure hand of Director (The Third Man, The Key) Reed has always achieved a smooth blend. But Funnyman Guinness is, as usual, marvelously funny, especially when he pretends to be cunning: at such moments he looks like a slightly depraved marshmallow. Funnyman Kovacs, a sort of Clark Gable with fangs, makes a perfect comedy menace, as smooth and slippery as a fresh-licked Havana cigar. But aging (60) Funnyman Coward, who was stealing scenes when the other two were still stealing cookies, almost walks off with the show. Indeed, the show is a bit too funny for its own good. The satire is too often sacrificed for the sake of a laugh, and many customers may never get the grimly ironic moral of the tale: in the modern world, political innocence is social guilt.”
In his analysis of the film, biographer Moss outlines the studied care Reed brought to steering the film through its transmutation “from a light-fingered spoof into a tragedy” and that “even when it goes awry it errs in the direction of thematic complexity and challenging ideas. One or two reviewers in 1960 commented on the parallels between Our Man in Havana and The Third Man, and though the former film is not as good, the correspondences are worth mentioning: an exotic city with narrow streets, a main character who brings about the death of his closest friend, a relentless policeman who beleaguers the hero. The music too is a haunting local creation, the plangent melodies of the Hermanos Deniz Cuban Rhythm Band. As in all good art, the parallels suggest an artist with a unified style and temperament who is applying them to fresh subject mater, supplying new aesthetic rewards rather than tilling the same old fields again.” Shot in gorgeous black-and-white Cinemascope by the great Oswald Morris (The Guns of Navarone, Lolita, The Hill, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Fiddler on the Roof and Reed’s later Oliver!), Our Man in Havana charms, chills and challenges expectations on a vibrantly rendered Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray.