Monday, January 18, 2010

Our Man in Havana

“Our Man in Havana,” the 1959 movie version of the Graham Greene novel, is charming, a little scary, and absolute genius when you come right down to it. It’s directed by Carol Reed, who also put Greene’s “The Third Man” on screen. They’re both dark and smart, and you can’t help rooting for the central characters to survive, no matter how badly they behave.

“Our Man” opens with Alec Guinness as everyman Jim Wormold, who runs a humble vacuum cleaner store in pre-Castro Havana. His shop isn’t much, and he also has a lovely teenage daughter to contend with. She has an expensive addiction to a horse and all the assorted bridles and saddles that go with it, plus she’s pretty enough to have caught the eye of the local police captain, a shady dude who seems to specialize in intimidation and torture.

When Hawthorne (Noel Coward) walks in and offers a big bundle of cash if Wormold will become Britain’s covert op in Havana, he reluctantly accepts. He’s supposed to recruit other agents and start gathering information, but he finds it almost impossible. What’s a mild-mannered vacuum cleaner salesman supposed to do? How about creating imaginary spies and imaginary inside information provided by those imaginary spies?

Wormold may not be very good at actual spy work, but he’s excellent with the fantasy stuff. In fact, he’s so impressive that London sends him a secretary (Maureen O’Hara) and a radio man, both eager to help him back up his data. As Wormold scrambles to cover his tracks, his fake coded messages are intercepted by the other side, which puts a lot of people, including him, in serious danger.

The cast is fabulous, what with a very dapper Noel Coward and Ralph Richardson as spymasters, Ernie Kovacs playing the cagey Cuban policeman, and Burl Ives as a German doctor. Think about it. You get Burl Ives, best known as either a claymation snowman singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” or as Big Daddy in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” sporting a vaguely German accent and playing the Sydney Greenstreet role, Alec Guinness and Ernie Kovacs sloshing through a drunken checkers game, and Noel Coward in his pajamas! What else do you need?

Honestly, Alec Guinness would be enough all by himself. There’s nobody better at subtly infusing a regular old guy – not young, not handsome, not all that bright – with enough humanity and charm to run all the vacuum cleaners in Cuba. This Spy Who Bluffed His Way Through the Cold is a delight.

“Our Man in Havana” played at the Normal Theater January 14 and 15. If you missed it, it’s also available on Netflix or at your local video store.


  1. So that's what happens in that film! I saw it as a child and couldn't follow the plot! Sounds really good.

    I did read Alec Guiness's memoir this summer!

  2. I remember my parents excitedly talking about it over breakfast one Sunday morning, having left us with a sitter and gone out to see it the previous night. I couldn't quite follow their plot description and in fact have never seen it, but I mean to remedy the situation now.

    And as you said, what a casting mix! Sir Alec and Sir Noel are sort of in the same restrained-upperclass mold, Sir Ralph isn't too far off though a tad earthier... and then you add Burl Ives and Ernie Kovacs! doing accents!

  3. It features the precise sort of cynical, vaguely whimsical humor I love. And I do think it's been somewhat overlooked. As Jon said elsewhere, how entertaining to think of Carol Reed with "The Third Man," "Oliver!" and "Our Man in Havana" all on his resume.