It seems like only yesterday I was speaking of spy spoofs. They have a tough mission set to them and going for guffaws must necessarily take away from the gravity of the espionage. You can’t worry about someone who gets kicked in the balls, it’s just too cartoonish. But a novel can take on nuances and levels of subtlety that an original film is unlikely to strive for. Our Man in Havana (1959), based upon the Graham Greene novel, translates these qualities into a truly excellent film.
Jim Wormhold (Alec Guinness) is a vacuum salesman in Havana, Cuba before the revolution. He has money troubles, mostly due to his daughter Milly (Jo Morrow) on whom Wormhold dotes. There’s also the terrible Capt. Sigura (Ernie Kovacs), known as the Red Vulture, is very interested in Milly as well as the goings on of Mr. Wormhold. One day, a British Intelligence officer, Hawthorne (Noel Coward), talks him into being an agent (with promises of $150 per month). When he finds recruiting sub-agents to be quite tricky, his friend and cheese scientist Dr. Hasselbacher (Burl Ives) suggests he just invent the information. He does. However, his lies start to add up and cause him considerable discomfort. British Intelligence sends him a secretary, Beatrice Severn (Maureen O’Hara), to help him in his work.
The logic of the movie is pretty hilarious. Though his information has become preposterous, people believe it to be true because other people believe it. The “enemy” believes it because British Intelligence could not be expected to be duped and British Intelligence believes it because the enemy is intent on killing him. Both Ives and Coward run by this point, but I find it the second funniest part in the movie. I’ll leave the funniest part to your entertainment. Greene, who wrote the screenplay, has filled this movie (perhaps from the book) with some excellent comedy.
The plot and tone is widely borrowed from by The Tailor of Panama (2001) (and, presumably, Le Carre novel). Having seen The Tailor of Panama first, it sort of spoiled the experience to an extent. If Our Man in Havana wasn’t its superior in every respect, I might have been deceived into thinking less of it. The curious tone works a bit better in an older film with older acting styles. They get a bit more room for elaborate satire than a modern film. Carol Reed’s camera action is quite dynamic and creates the skewed sensation. Again, in a modern movie I might have found something like that too intrusive. But perhaps not, it isn’t like it was filmed on a roller coaster like Snake Eyes (1998) or The Brave One (2007). Actually, I liked both of those movies, so maybe I’m talking nonsense.
How are the serious bits? Well, no one gets kicked in the goulash. In fact, I’m quite concerned for our hero. He gets in over his head—a strange idiom when you really think about it—and that much is dealt with in a sincere fashion. Cynical, but sincere. Really, it’s only British Intelligence that’s an unmitigated joke. Everyone else is just a little thick.
There are some weaknesses. They mostly relate to the oldness of the style. It does half-way call out for a remake, but I’m not sure a new movie could balance the tones as well as the original. There’s also the serious probability that someone will quirk the hell out of it.
This is a great movie that’s well worth seeing. At $15, I’ll leave it to your economic sense on purchasing.