Third Man Duo's Third Time Out
The Fallen Idol (1948) and The Third Man (1949), two collaborations of author Graham Greene and director Carol Reed, were considered excellent in their day and masterworks today. A similar reception did not result in their 10-years-later reunion on Our Man in Havana (1959), but nonetheless there’s a sufficient amount of espionage spoofery, droll performances, worldly commentary on bureaucratic gamesmanship and time-capsule footage of dawning Castro-era Cuba on display to lift it to the status of “neglected gem.” Interestingly, Greene first conceived the story a decade before as a script outline, inspired by stories he’d heard during his World War II-era MI6 service about German agents in Portugal who would feed fictitious reports of espionage activity to their governmental overseers in order to pad their salaries and expense accounts. As Nicholas Wapshott reports in his 1990 Carol Reed: A Biography, “They [Abwher agents] reasoned that inventing information was easier than discovering it and, as the tide of the war had turned, the Germans were no longer in a position to complain. Besides, their German income was too useful to abandon. Greene’s experiences in East Africa had convinced him of how agents’ reports were taken seriously at home base, however untrue or absurd. What is more, the headquarters staff appeared grateful for even the most useless information, as long as that information kept coming. Greene therefore wrote [in 1946 for director Alberto] Cavalcanti a one-page synopsis woven around this combination of sloth in the field and headquarters gullibility.” But the project did not jell, and as the 1950s sealed the onset of the Cold War and, as Greene discovered the fertile possibilities of Cuba across several visits during the decade, he decided to rework his story in that locale as a black comedy novel published in 1958. He “invented the character of Jim Wormold (Alec Guinness), an English vacuum-cleaner salesman in Cuba who is recruited by Hawthorne (Noël Coward), the British Secret Service chief in the Caribbean, to assemble a ring of trusted agents and to spy against the crooked Batista regime. At first reluctant to become involved in the spying trade, Wormold incompetently attempts to recruit spies but fails. He is, however, determined to provide for his acquisitive daughter (Jo Morrow) and so, rather than confess his incompetence and thereby cut off his tax-free income, he begins to peddle make-believe information to the head of the secret service, code-named “C” (Ralph Richardson), in London. All the characters were based to some extent on people Greene had encountered during his own time in intelligence, except for Wormold and Dr. Hasselbacher (Burl Ives), who was inspired by a sad, overweight friend who lived near Greene in Capri.” Alfred Hitchcock expressed interest in the rights, but Greene’s price and his own desire for artistic fidelity proved too rich for the Master of Suspense, and the result was a reteaming with Reed, whom Greene considered “the only director I know with that particular warmth of human sensitivity, the extraordinary feeling for the right face for the right part, the exactitude of casting, and not least important the power of sympathizing with an author’s worries and the ability to guide him.” With the flavorful international casting rounded out by Maureen O’Hara as “the female agent sent to help with Wormold’s huge workload” and bravura comedian Ernie Kovacs as Batista police Capt. Segura, the production went before the cameras in a country now outfitted with a new leader, Fidel Castro, whose revolutionary forces unseated the Batista government at the start of 1959. Wapshott's account adds that “the film unit had a number of distinguished visitors, including Ernest Hemingway, who lived in a beach house not far away and invited Greene, Coward and the Guinnesses to dinner one evening. And, on the last day of filming, Castro himself paid a visit to the location.” A lukewarm audience and critical reaction greeted what The Motion Picture Guide authors Jay Robert Nash and Stanley Ralph Ross today consider “a droll comedy that is as hilarious as it is absurd. The real world of spies is ridiculous enough and here that great British director Reed takes those absurdities and crams them into the twisting, gyrating and Machiavellian mind of vacuum-cleaner salesman Guinness, …and it mixes its subtle mirth with some fearful and sinister consequences.” It’s a film, shot by the great Oswald Morris in tantalizing black-and-white Cinemascope and deliciously laced with the Latin Band stylings of brothers Frank and Laurence Deniz, that, in our new era of a more open Cuba and the rise of “alternative facts,” calls for further investigation via Twilight Time’s hi-def Blu-ray of Our Man in Havana, pulling into port March 14. Preorders open March 1.