PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Reviews

Our Man in Havana

A lost gem from the team that crafted The Third Man finally shows up on DVD.


Our Man in Havana

Director: Carol Reed
Cast: Alec Guinness, Burl Ives, Maureen O’Hara
Distributor: Paramount
MPAA rating: Unrated
Subtitle: Martini Movies
First date: 1960
US DVD Release Date: 2009-02-03

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.

8

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.

Books

Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.

Music

Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.

Books

Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.

Film

In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.

Music

The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.

Television

The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Music

The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller
Music

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.

Music

When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.

Music

20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.

Music

The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.

Books

Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.

Music

Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."

Music

50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.

Film

Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.

Film

The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.

Music

Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.