Our Man in Havana (1959)


(director: Carol Reed; screenwriter: Graham Greene/based Mr. Greene’s novel; cinematographer: Oswald Morris; editor: Bert Bates; Music: Hermanos Deniz Cuban Rhythm Bandcast; Alec Guinness (Jim Wormold), Burl Ives (Dr. Hasselbacher), Maureen O’Hara (Beatrice Severn), Ernie Kovacs (Capt. Segura), Noel Coward (Hawthorne), Ralph Richardson (‘C’), Paul Rogers (Hubert Carter), Jo Morrow (Milly Wormold), Grégoire Aslan (Cifuentes), Jose Prieto (Lopez), Duncan Macrae (MacDougal), Maurice Denham(Admiral), Raymond Huntley(General). Ferdy Mayne (Professor Sanchez); Runtime: 111; Columbia; 1960-UK)

“A droll black comedy.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A droll black comedy that spoofs the spy business in unstable Cuba just prior to Castro’s revolution. Alec Guinness gives a magical performance as someone who starts out as an innocent but soon learns how to milk the rewards from playing the spy game. It is directed with refined comic subtlety by Carol Reed (“The Third Man”). It is based on a story by Graham Greene. The film company was granted the right to film their exterior shots by the new Communist regime after the fall of the Batista government in 1959, and after five weeks of shooting it took about another three months to complete the film at the Shepperton Studios in London.

Wormold (Alec Guinness) is a meek man who is barely squeezing out a living selling vacuum cleaners in his Havana store. He dotes on his attractive teenage daughter, who is spoiled rotten. His Catholic wife just disappeared and made no contact with either her husband or daughter; Wormold is now concerned only about giving his materialistic-minded daughter the finer things in life such as a finishing school education in Switzerland and a horse.

A rigid British government official called Hawthorne (Coward), dressed conspicuously and inappropriately for this tropical climate in a derby and a formal black suit and also carrying an umbrella under his arm, approaches Wormold while being followed down the street by some musicians playing solely for him. He asks Wormold as a patriotic gesture to become a spy–‘our man in Havana.’ They secretly meet in the men’s room of a bar, where Hawthorne follows the laws of spy rituals as he turns on the water taps to muffle the sound in case the room is bugged. He wants economic, military, or political info about Cuba and asks him to hire agents to help him get this info. For his spy services he will be paid a handsome salary, which is what raises Wormold’s eyebrows and tempts him to take the offer.

Totally unsuited for this kind of work the timid Wormold asks his best friend, the kindly but wise German doctor, Dr. Hasselbacher (Burl Ives), what to do. He’s told to invent the agents and the info, and grab the money. Wormold follows this advice and gets the head of the Secret Service, ‘C’ (Ralph Richardson), to get the agency to spring for the money so he can join the ritzy country club in order to infiltrate where the politically elite go to relax. ‘C’ is shown as so unaware of geography, he can’t tell the difference on the office wall map between the East and West Indies.

At the club Wormold tries to recruit suitable agents, but is unsuccessful. Instead, he makes believe he has recruited these real people. Getting carried away with his mission, he falsely tells his agency that his pilot discovered a site in the mountains where there is a military installation with secret weapons. These weapons are drawn by him and look like his vacuum-cleaner parts. This info is passed on through code, as the spies use Charles Lamb’s book ” Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare” as their way of communicating.

The agency is very happy with these drawings and send two other agents to work under him, a radio operator and a secretary, Beatrice Severn (Maureen O’Hara). A timid romance develops between him and Beatrice, but it is not convincingly done.

To represent the strongarm of a dictatorship, Ernie Kovacs plays the role of a cigar-puffing, sleazy, corrupt, womanizer who is also a politically crafty police captain. He suspects Guinness is a spy but does not deport him because he’s romantically chasing his chaste daughter in a gentlemanly way, hoping that she will marry him.

Warning: spoiler in the next two paragraphs.

The implications of what Guinness has done has led to the murder of two innocent men, and his own life is threatened by a real spy ring. The Guinness character recognizes that everything has now become real and when another vacuum-cleaner salesman (Paul Rogers) is sent to kill him, the unlikely man of action takes appropriate action against the hired assassin. He steals the police captain’s gun when they play checkers (using miniature liquor bottles as the checker pieces) and the winner has to drink the bottles he jumps. The captain wins the checker game, but Wormold out maneuvers the passed out police captain by using that time to take care of his spy business and establish a perfect alibi.

When Beatrice later on finds that his info is a hoax, she risks her job to defend him. The agency, on the other hand, is only interested in covering their asses. Therefore when he’s deported to London and confesses what he did, they fail to prosecute but instead keep him on the payroll to do speaking engagements in order to avoid public embarrassment for their agency.

This is a very genteel spoof, mainly played for entertainment value. But it is cleverly done, as Guinness, Coward, Kovacs and Richardson are all devilishly charming characters. Ives and O’Hara are capable performers but have underwritten parts, while Morrow gets nothing out of her role. She is bland and uninspiring. The film does capture the cynicism and greed of that era, and it does it in a delightful manner with a wry wit and an intricate plot.