Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Our Man in Havana’

Our Man in Havana
Our Man in Havana: showing at BAMPFA on Sunday afternoon

There was a time when the writings of Graham Greene were film producer catnip. Most of Greene’s novels have been adapted for the screen at least once – the most recent example being ‘Brighton Rock’, remade in lackluster fashion by Rowan (son of Roland) Joffe in 2010.

British director Carol Reed had a particular fondness for the renowned author, with whom he collaborated on three separate occasions: first, on 1948’s The Fallen Idol (featuring Ralph Richardson as a sinister butler); secondly (and only a year later) on the classic The Third Man; and finally, after a ten-year hiatus, on 1959’s Our Man in Havana (screening at Pacific Film Archive on Sunday, March 20 at 4:00 p.m. and on Friday, April 1st at 8:30 p.m.).

Somewhat of a departure for Greene, who rarely penned comic material but found “in fantastic Havana, among the absurdities of the Cold War… a situation allowably comic”*, Our Man in Havana is the darkly amusing tale of a vacuum cleaner salesman caught up in Cold War intrigue. Shot on location in Cuba in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution (Fidel visited the set and even invited the crew to drop by his humble bungalow), Reed’s film lightens the novel’s tone even further.

The salesman in question is Jim Wormold (Alec Guinness, his star still in the ascendant thanks to appearances in such popular Ealing comedies as Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Ladykillers), a British ex-pat selling Hoovers to the wealthy in Batista-era Havana. Eager to send daughter Millie (Jo Morrow) to a Swiss finishing school (and ultimately hoping to retire to leafy Kensington), Jim is always on the lookout for new money-making opportunities.

Enter Hawthorne (Noel Coward), a British intelligence operative looking to hire Jim as his eyes and ears in the neighborhood for a generous (and tax-free) 150 pounds a month plus expenses. At first reluctant (“vacuum cleaners take up a lot of time”), Jim is eventually won over and plunges into the job with gusto.

His enthusiasm, however, is driven less by patriotism than by good, old-fashioned greed. Quickly discovering that supplementing his monthly stipend is a simple matter of hiring a cadre of sub-agents (none of whom actually exist), Jim further pads his expense account by concocting evidence of a secret weapon buried deep in the Cuban jungle – a weapon that bears a striking resemblance to a vacuum cleaner and its accoutrements.

Co-starring Maureen O’Hara (as a secretary assigned by London to assist Wormold with his rapidly expanding operation; the actress ending up talking politics and history with Che Guevara during the shoot) and Ernie Kovacs (as a cigar-chomping Cuban policeman), Our Man in Havana was shot by the highly regarded Oswald Morris. In common with Greene, Morris – who would go on to win an Academy Award for Fiddler on the Roof – also worked with Reed three times. The two seem to have been particularly simpatico, as Morris’s work in Havana echoes (via Dutch tilts and noirish nighttime scenes) Robert Krasker’s in The Third Man.

*from ‘Ways of Escape’, pg. 206.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.

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