Sunday, September 13, 2009

Our Man in Havana (1959)

If you have ever wondered how to turn your vacuum cleaner into a satirical film noir, then this movie is for you.

British novelist and screenwriter Graham Greene and director Carol Reed, who brought you Harry Lime, The Third Man (1949), team up again for Our Man in Havana (1959). Shot on location, it’s noir in the tropics with a strong rip current of dark humor.

It’s a cross genre flick. Although my library classifies it as a comedy, the movie has elements of film noir.

Expatriates and Amateur Espionage

The story is about a British expatriate living in Havana, Cuba in the late 1950s. Set against a backdrop of political instability, James Wormold (Alec Guinness) unwittingly and gradually slides into a dangerous world. The stakes are high; it’s Cuba on the brink of revolution in the cold war.

In the first act, Greene and Reed introduce us to Wormold and his difficulty. He faces money troubles. His only teenage daughter, Milly (Jo Morrow), has expensive tastes: horses and country clubs. An ordinary expatriate, Wormold sells vacuum cleaners in Cuba, but does not produce enough money for his daughter’s expensive tastes and his ambitions for her.

As sure as the trade winds blow, opportunity blows Wormold’s way. The British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) needs a man in Havana. Spymaster for the Caribbean, Mr. Hawthorne (Noël Coward) offers Wormold a job - to spy in exchange for money. Wormold accepts the offer.

Wormold’s task is to recruit local agents to work for MI6. But without training and experience in the art of spy craft, the hapless amateur does not know what to do. So to keep the spy cash flowing, our man in Havana invents a list of phantom agents who include local country club elites and strippers.

And to add to the untruth, Wormold draws what is supposed to be a secret military installation in the mountains of Cuba, inspired by a vacuum cleaner design. The drawing gains the attention of the top clandestine directors at MI6 and the British Prime Minister. Wormold also attracts the attention of the enemy. Cold war paranoia gets everyone believing Wormold.

As we enter the third act, the story turns noir. Folly leads to dark results and transforms our man. The satire is dark, and the circumstances and choices are existential.

A prolific writer who wrote critically acclaimed and popular novels, Graham Greene served in the British Secret Service in World War II. In this satire, he delivers insight about the murky world of espionage and political paranoia. Faulty thinking and confusion run amok.

In a general way, the theme of Our Man in Havana reminds of Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There (1979) staring Peter Sellers, as Chance the gardener who gives metaphorical advice to world leaders. Our Man in Havana is about amateurs duping professionals. And, as Graham Greene illustrates, being misled by disinformation in the espionage business is dangerous and embarrassing. And, material for dark satire and film noir.

On Location Cinematography

Carol Reed guides us through the streets, clubs, and bars of 1959 Havana with excellent cinematography.

The on location shooting is a remarkable tour. We see the city as it looked just after Castro overthrew the Bautista regime - the transfer of power of one strong-arm dictator to another. We see Havana in its heyday - sleazy, corrupt, and beautiful. A hot town in a cold war.

Throughout most of the flick, Reed delivers daylight cinematography paralleling the lighthearted humor in the early part of the movie. But, as the story turns dark towards the end, he gives us night scenes, long shadows, back alley streets, seedy bars, and gunfire. It’s typical expressionist film noir. Some of the camera shots and angles are reminiscent of Vienna in The Third Man.

But Reed gives us only a few snapshots of noir Havana; he could have given us more. Only about 10 to 15% of the cinematography contains noir features: dark scenes, wet streets, long shadows, sleazy hangouts, offset camera angles, mayhem, and tough dialogue.

Greene’s book was darker than the movie. I suspect a corrupt, crumbling, and revolutionary Havana in the late 1950s was not a lighthearted place laced with British reserve, understatement, and double entendre.

Satirical Dialogue

Greene’s dialogue throughout is largely satirical. It’s not the hard-boiled dialogue of James M. Cain, Art Cohn, Cornell Woolrich, or Raymond Chandler, but Chandler would have probably appreciated the wit.

While sitting in Sloppy Joe’s bar (Ernest Hemingway’s favorite Havana bar), here is how Hawthorne lures Wormold into the spy business:

Hawthorne, “Where’s the gents?”

Wormold, “Through there.”

Hawthorne, “You go in, and I’ll follow.”

Wormold, “But I don’t want the gents.”

Hawthorne, “Don’t let me down. You’re an Englishman, aren’t you?”

Overall Convincing Acting

Alec Guinness does a notable job portraying the amateur spy…a buffoon, who gets nasty in dark alleys when he has to.

Noël Coward plays a persuasive British spymaster; his performance almost steals the show from Guinness. Hawthorne warns Wormold spying is a dangerous business, but Wormold doesn’t grasp that fact until it’s too late. Coward and Guinness interactions are some of the flick’s high points.

Burl Ives
plays the rotund Dr. Hasselbacher, a German expatriate friend of Wormold, who gives Wormold the idea to invent spy stories. And, although Ives plays the character well, one wonders what the impact of Orson Welles playing the character would have had on the film. Welles’ influence on The Third Man is undeniable.

Comedian Ernie Kovacs plays a strong supporting role as the smooth Captain Segura, a corrupt sleaze-ball and double-dealing cop who wants to marry Wormold’s daughter - Milly. Kovacs has several bits of dark satirical dialogue, including a debate about torture, which he delivers in deadpan style. Captain Segura believes torture is for the lower class.

Maureen O’Hara makes an acceptable appearance as MI6’s appointed assistant to Wormold. Her character adds some mild tension to Wormold’s problems, but she under delivers in the romantic role.

Bland and blonde, Jo Morrow plays the teenage Milly. Her acting is uninspiring. The other cast members and the strength of the story carry her along. She is not a femme fatale, but rather an innocent catalyst. Wormold’s need for money to satisfy her lifestyle sets the plot in motion.

Paul Rogers plays the stuttering enemy agent, who has trouble talking to women, even in pick-up joints.

As Entertaining as Gin and Tonics in the Tropics

The movie is entertaining.

Although the flick does not have the emotional impact of The Third Man, which is one of the all-time film noir greats, Our Man in Havana is well worth the watch, just to see how Greene and Reed create. They are master artists.

For film noir addicts, sorting out the out the noir from the satire is half the fun. And for students of cinema, Reed is an expert director, stylist, and expressionist.

At the very least, Our Man in Havana has given me new respect and ideas for my vacuum cleaner.


Written by Hard-Boiled Rick


  1. Orson Welles as Dr. Hasselbacher. Now there is an idea that could have put this movie on another level entirely. I suspect we would have had a much larger percentage of the noir element. Maybe we would have had another one of Welles' classics to view? I watched this movie several times & though enjoyable I believe it is essentially comedy.

  2. Great pick and post. I'm a sucker for the bumbling amateur caught in a web of intrigue in foreign locales and this one has it all. It's certainly true that the book's darker but both film and book are classics in their own way, playing to their own strengths. I could watch this, The Third Man and Dr Strangelove over and over.

  3. Maureen O'Hara was very wondering in it


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