Our Man in Havana

[1 March 2009]

By Bob Proehl

Graham Greene and his work are almost inseparable from alcohol.  Spirits play a central role in many of his fictions and perhaps nowhere moreso than in Our Man In Havana, which in both its literary and film incarnations, the latter adapted by Carol Reed from Greene’s screenplay, is soaked in whiskey and ever-present daquiris.  Reed, who had previously adapted Greene in the better-known film, The Third Man, sets most of Greene’s spy story in bars, strip joints and country clubs, and characters are more likely to a drink in their hand than a gun.  It seems fitting then that the film finally sees DVD release as part of Sony’s Martini Movies series, even though it bears little resemblance to the series’ other films in tone and surpasses all of them in quality.

Opening on a shot of a rooftop swimming pool, we are informed that “This film is set in Cuba before the recent revolution”, an environment of leisurely tourism and civil unrest.  The action centers around Jim Wormold (Guinness), a vacuum cleaner salesman who is recruited into the British intelligence with promises of money and vague mentions of patriotism.  Desperate to secure the financial wellbeing of his daughter, Wormold accepts and, to please his superiors and keep the checks rolling in, begins inventing informants and passing on fake information.  All of which seems harmless enough until his fictional informants begin turning up dead.

Alec Guinness, tragically most familiar to American audiences as Obi Wan Kenobi, was at the height of his powers at this point in his career.  He had just captured the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in Bridge on the River Kwai, which, while brilliant, gives a very limited view of his versatility.  Wormold’s transformation from hapless drunk to shrewd (but still drunk) conniver to noble (but still drunk) action hero allows Guinness to display his ability to physically inhabit a character, mixing the comedic prowess of his Henry Holland from The Lavender Hill Mob with the strained dignity of Bridge on the River Kwai’s Colonel Nickerson.  His portrayal of Wormold lacks some of the pathos of the character in the novel, coming off as funnier and less a victim, but the end effect is similar: Wormold remains something of a nowhere man, at home neither in Britain nor Havana; at home, he’s a tourist.

Carol Reed’s directing style is immediately recognizable to enthusiasts of The Third Man.  The soundtrack recalls the zither music that ratchets up the tension in The Third Man, but seems warmer and less frenetic, echoing the pacing of the film, which strolls leisurely through its setup before reeling to its conclusion.  The skewed camera angles used by Reed to give the feel of the disorienting angles of Vienna’s streets are used more sparingly here to illustrate the near-constant tipsiness of the characters.

Like post-war Vienna in The Third Man, Greene’s Havana is a city thrown into turmoil by history, and again, Greene excels in showing the effects of history on those with no stake in it.  But while The Third Man shows a climate that can turn great men (we’re to assume Harry Lime’s greatness from the testimony of his friends) into petty criminals, Our Man in Havana shows how a culture of fear and suspicion can turn a petty man into, momentarily, a great one.

Perhaps most important for modern viewers to consider is how an environment of paranoia and a bureaucratic intelligence mechanism (the agents in the film are referred to through an arcane numbering system; a little dig at 007) predicated on producing results are bound to create their own myths.  Wormold is pressured into producing intelligence, so he dreams some up.  And the gentlemen at the foreign office are more than happy to blindly accept.  Wormold’s friend and confidante, Dr. Hasselbacher, tells the hapless salesman he “should dream more, reality in this century is not something to be faced”, and Hasselbacher’s words seem to presage the “noble lie” advocated by neoconservative patron saint Leo Strauss as necessary for the governing of nations, along with the phantoms summoned up by the Bush administration to justify military actions abroad and civil rights infringements at home. 

Moreover, the infatuation with dreamed-up devices, beginning with the Atomic Pile vacuum cleaner Wormold is selling, makes British intelligence all the more susceptible to the maps of military installations Wormold derives from vacuum cleaner plans, and at the same time renders them utterly unable to anticipate what came rushing down out of the wilderness on New Year’s Day 1959.  One can’t help but think of America’s vain searches for WMDs while actual threats, unimaginable in their small scale and simplicity, continued beneath the noses of the intelligence community.

The extras this release provides are negligible, unfortunately, consisting mainly of an ad for the rest of the Martini Movies series, none of which will necessarily appeal to fans of this film.  But if it takes inclusion in a relatively silly film series to get this gem back in the hands of viewers, I’ll drink to that.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/70393-our-man-in-havana/