Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Movie Review: Our Man In Havana (1959)


A cold war satirical drama, Our Man In Havana adapts the Graham Greene novel of spy intrigue in pre-revolution Cuba with an emphasis on the more humorous elements. Under the guidance of director Carol Reed, the film is a sharp condemnation of the great game by the foot soldiers pressed into fighting a shadow war.

Havana in the late 1950s. Hawthorne (Noël Coward) of the British Secret Intelligence Service recruits vacuum cleaner salesman James Wormold (Alec Guinness) to be the local operative. Wormold's daughter Milly (Jo Morrow) has expensive tastes, and so he accepts the assignment lured by the easy money and the prospect of joining the prestigious country club. Wormold is friends with Dr. Hasselbacher (Burl Ives), a philosophical larger-than-life German, while Captain Segura (Ernie Kovacs) is the pompous Havana police chief, keeping an eye on all the spooks in town and lusting after Milly.

Pressured by London into actually earning his money by nurturing local sources and uncovering enemy secrets, Wormold invents a fake network of agents reporting to him, and draws imaginative sketches of non-existent massive new weapons systems (inspired by vacuum cleaner parts) uncovered by his spies. Unfortunately his British superiors take it all very seriously, and dispatch Beatrice Severn (Maureen O'Hara) as a secretary to bolster Wormold's Havana station resources. Death threats and dead bodies soon sweep over Havana, with Wormold finding his life in danger as his light-hearted dabbling in the spy world turns deadly serious.

Our Man In Havana distills the cold war to on-the-ground spies caught up in the absurdity of a conflict that rumbles on in distant capitals but insists on casting a long shadow towards every corner of the world. Wormold is more bemused than upset that his country needs him, and proceeds to milk the opportunity for pure personal gain and then for fun.

Greene, who wrote the script, does not hesitate to reveal the paranoia-driven idiocy of Hawthorne and his bosses in London (including Ralph Richardson as "C"), who can't tell a vacuum cleaner sketch from a real weapons threat. And the other side is not much better, intercepting and believing Wormold's grandiose transmittals and triggering a round of needless violence and bloodletting.

Filmed in Havana months after the communist revolution but set in the pre-revolutionary era, Our Man In Havana captures the sights and sounds of a bustling city full of life, lust, suspicion and chicanery. From bars to night spots, street corners to country clubs, apartments to police stations, Reed fills the screen with activity. Every shot has something going on in the background, adding to the sense of constant motion and potential eavesdropping.

Despite the stark black and white photography and the pervasive literal and metaphorical shadows dominating the city, Reed keeps the mood light and the plot humming along. The emphasis is on Wormold's sardonic view of the world as all those around him appear to be going off one edge or another. Hawthorne is fully invested in the craziness of the spy world, Hasselbacher is suspended between a murky past and a dwindling present, while Segura is prowling the streets of Havana looking for enemies and trying to endear himself to Milly.

It is in the character of Milly that the movie stumbles a bit, her out of control spending and tolerance of Segura never quite explained against her otherwise normal context. And Wormold does undergo an unlikely late transformation from make believe spy to a more professional recruit capable of outsmarting his seasoned foes.

But with Guinness, Kovacs and Ives delivering performances rich in texture and island scheming, Our Man In Havana succeeds thanks to the twinkle in its eye and a barbed attitude.






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