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Our Man in Havana (1959)

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Main image of Our Man in Havana (1959)
35mm, CinemaScope, black and white, 111 mins
Directed byCarol Reed
Production CompanyKingsmead Productions Ltd
Produced byCarol Reed
Novel and ScreenplayGraham Greene
Photographed byOswald Morris
MusicThe Hermanos Deniz Cuban Rhythm Band

Cast: Alec Guinness (Jim Wormold); Burl Ives (Dr Hasselbacher); Maureen O'Hara (Beatrice Severn); Ernie Kovacs (Captain Segura); Noël Coward (Hawthorne); Ralph Richardson (C)

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When a vacuum-cleaner salesman in Havana is recruited as a Secret Service agent, he justifies his salary by inventing a whole series of assistants, counter- spies and secret information. But real life starts to resemble his fiction.

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"Is that the one made of human skin?" Wormold nonchalantly asks as Captain Segura extracts his cigarette case at the Tropicana nightclub. The remark is like a bite to the ankle, suddenly reminding us that beneath the comedy in Graham Greene's book and Carol Reed's film lies material with a dark side and teeth. The plot's central conceit, partly drawn from Greene's Secret Service experiences during World War Two, first surfaced in a film outline written for the producer Alberto Cavalcanti. Following visits to Cuba in the 1950s, the outline became a novel, published in 1958 during the last months of the restrictive Batista regime. A production deal with Columbia Pictures was finalised in October; by the time the crew and the American-flavoured cast arrived to shoot on locations in March, Cuba's long-fomenting revolution had boiled over, bringing Fidel Castro to power. Interior work followed at Shepperton.

Reed opens the film brilliantly, the camera roaming rooftop and street, conjuring heat, lust and danger. Then barrelling round a corner comes Hawthorne, impeccably British, impeccably Noël Coward, prodding the film towards light satire of British bureaucracy and a comic study of Wormold the vacuum cleaner salesman, the small man who swims out of his depth. Wormold's recruitment and his early phantom activities as a spy are handled with poise and crisp timing, though some jeopardy enters with the flat-footed Milly of Jo Morrow, urged upon Reed by Columbia.

Further wobbles arrive the more Wormold spins his web of deceit. Some problems centre on Alec Guinness, forced by Reed's instructions to ditch the quirks of character acting for a relatively straight performance. In exchanges with his weary friend Hasselbacher or the imperturbable Hawthorne, Guinness's Wormold is spry and dry; he can also appear something of a cipher, lost in the drab expanse of black-and-white CinemaScope as events crowd the naïve salesman and the dead bodies mount.

The increasing dark patches in Greene's script further disperse the film's comic energy, though individual dramas are handled effectively, with some of Oswald Morris's shots offering a muted echo of the tilted-camera panache of Reed's greatest Greene collaboration, The Third Man (1949). Amusing but fitful, Our Man in Havana was not quite the film any of its participants probably hoped for, though when Hawthorne orders the baffled Wormold into the bar toilet all criticism vanishes. "Don't let me down," Hawthorne says; "you're an Englishman, aren't you?"

Geoff Brown

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Video Clips
1. Recruitment (1:00)
2. Revenge (1:00)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Audley, Maxine (1923-1992)
Box, John (1920-2005)
Coward, Noël (1899-1973)
Denham, Maurice (1909-2002)
Greene, Graham (1904-1991)
Guinness, Alec (1914-2000)
Le Mesurier, John (1912-1983)
Morris, Oswald (1915-)
O'Hara, Gerry (1924-)
Reed, Carol (1906-1976)
Roberts, Rachel (1927-1980)
Welch, Elisabeth (1908-2003)