Monday, November 4, 2019
Carol Reed's Our Man in Havana (1959)
Greene has a well-deserved reputation for being dark and pessimistic but Our Man in Havana caught him in a playful mood. It’s certainly a very cynical spy story but it’s wickedly amusing, bitingly satirical and remarkably good-natured. The tone of the movie perfectly reflects that of the book.
So it seems like a stroke of good fortune when he is approached by Hawthorne (Noël Coward). Hawthorne is the Caribbean station chief for the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). And MI6 needs a man in Havana. Hawthorne feels that Wormold is ideal spy material. Why he would think this is a mystery although it may have something to do with the fact that Hawthorne is a not a very competent spymaster. Wormold has no interest in being a spy but the $150 a month plus expenses (tax free) that MI6 is offering would buy a lot of horse feed so he accepts the offer. Things are definitely looking up. Mr Wormold is happy. Milly is happy. The horse is happy.
The real trouble starts when London, excited by the extraordinarily valuable intelligence he is supplying, sends him an assistant. So now he has to persuade this assistant, Mrs Severn (Maureen O’Hara), that he really is a spy. Worse follows. Much worse. Someone else, someone from the other side, is also convinced that he is a real and very dangerous spy and they start taking very serious steps to remove Mr Wormold and his espionage network from the scene.
Carol Reed was the ideal person to bring the novel to the screen. He was a stylish director and had shown a gift for combining ironic cynical espionage tales in his earlier masterpiece The Third Man which of course was also written by Graham Greene. Quite a few of the visual flourishes that gave that movie its distinctive display make a re-appearance in Our Man in Havana (lots of Dutch angles for example).
Alec Guinness is in sparkling form. I was dubious about Burl Ives as a German doctor but he carries it off rather well. Noël Coward as Hawthorne and Ralph Richardson as ‘C’ are delicious as Wormold’s self-important but ridiculously inept superiors. Comedian Ernie Kovacs is surprisingly good as the secret policeman Captain Segura, a man with an evil reputation and a cheerful disposition.
Graham Greene, having been an actual MI6 agent himself, understood the absurdities and the deceptions (and self-deceptions) of the game of espionage. This movie adaptation of Our Man in Havana is a delight. It’s witty and lively and combines a light-hearted tone with some truly savage satire. The superb cast certainly helps. Highly recommended.