Carol Reed’s film of Graham Greene’s novel Our Man in Havana (from a screenplay by Greene) is at once very much of its time—1959—and surprisingly modern and relevant to today. It takes place in Batista’s Havana, a place that ceased to exist with Fidel Castro’s coming to power, which occurred while the film was in development, earning the movie an explanatory title that the story is set “just prior to the recent revolution.” The revolution may have played in the film’s favor, since Castro—who had yet to align himself with the Soviet Union—was only too happy to grant permission for location shooting of a movie that showed the Batista—and British and American—government in a bad light. (He did insist the screenplay make it look a little worse.)
If the resulting film isn’t quite up to the last Carol Reed-Graham Greene collaboration, The Third Man (1949), that’s no disgrace, since very few films are up to The Third Man—and, truthfully, Our Man in Havana isn’t that far off. It’s interesting for me to reflect that when I first saw the film as a teenager, I found it disappointing. I think that’s partly because I saw it around the same time that I first saw most of the Ealing comedies that Alec Guinness starred in and I just wanted it to be funnier. This also proves that I was simply too young to appreciate the film, because it’s actually very funny. But the humor is both subtle and very bitter.
Guinness stars as Jim Wormold, a British expatriate living in Havana with his teenage daughter Milly (Jo Morrow). Wormold ekes out something of a living by running a vacuum-cleaner shop, but mostly passes his time drinking daiquiris at a local watering hole, the Wonderbar, with his friend Dr. Hasselbacher (Burl Ives). It’s at another bar (the famous Sloppy Joe’s) that a mysterious man named Hawthorne (Noel Coward), who had supposedly been shopping for a vacuum cleaner, strikes up an acquaintance with him and asks him to meet him in “the gents.” Even though he hasn’t a clue what’s going on (“But I don’t want the gents,” he protests), Wormold follows Hawthorne into the men’s room—and quickly finds himself recruited into the British secret service, even though he doesn’t believe it and thinks Hawthorne is simply nuts.
The promise of money—$150 a month “tax free”—however lures Wormold into becoming Britain’s “man in Havana.” The problem is that he has nothing to report, so he proceeds to make things up—and then kicks this into high-gear when he learns he can get money to pay other agents, whom he also makes up. The catch is that he both claims real people as agents and inadvertently invents one from whole cloth who turns out to be real, thereby accidentally placing them in danger, since there’s, of course, a Cuban counter-intelligence at work. His fantastic claims of hidden military installations of secret weapons (complete with drawings taken from the inner workings of vacuum cleaners) convince the British that something is really up in Cuba and the whole thing snowballs out of control.
It wouldn’t be long, of course, before Castro aligned himself with the Soviets and a situation not wholly unlike the one dreamed up for the film would in fact be true, giving the film the illusion of having been ahead of the game. Seen today, it takes on even greater relevance, with its depiction of bogus information being taken for the real thing. It’s not much of a stretch from Wormold’s secret weapons to the “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq, and this gives the film an uncomfortably modern feeling—after more than 50 years.
Beyond this, however, Our Man in Havana is simply a very entertaining film, expertly made and boasting an amazing cast in some of the best-drawn roles of their careers. Guinness is perfection itself as Wormold, but he’s closely matched by Burl Ives. Ives’ “Big Daddy” may be his signature role, but for my money, his Dr. Hasselbach is the real jewel of his acting career. There’s also a good bit of sly humor that probably went unnoticed at the time. Since Ian Fleming’s James Bond had yet to rocket to his greatest fame via the movies, it’s unlikely that 1959 audiences even noticed the dig at the character with the big sign reading “Bond” on the same street as Wormold’s shop. For that matter, it’s improbable that the idea of Noel Coward trying to coerce Guinness into the men’s room had much subtext then, even if everyone involved in making the film certainly knew Coward was gay. Sometimes the passage of years lends a resonance to films, as it does here.