Our Man in Havana (1959)

Our Man in Havana (1959)

“Everything’s legal in Havana.”

A vacuum cleaner salesman (Alec Guinness) in pre-Revolutionary Havana is conscripted by a member (Noel Coward) of the British Secret Service Agency to serve as a local operative, and with help from a friend (Burl Ives), he concocts imaginary contacts and sends stories about them to his supervisor (Ralph Richardson) at headquarters. He receives ample money in exchange, which he uses to buy presents for his teenage daughter (Jo Morrow), who is dating a menacing police captain (Ernic Kovacs). Soon, however, a beautiful assistant (Maureen O’Hara) is sent from London to help Guinness, and his lies begin to unravel in increasingly lethal ways.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Alec Guinness Films
  • Black Comedy
  • Burl Ives Films
  • Carol Reed Films
  • Cuba
  • Expatriates
  • Maureen O’Hara Films
  • Mistaken or Hidden Identities
  • Noel Coward Films
  • Ralph Richardson Films
  • Spies

Nearly a decade after the release of The Third Man (1949), Carol Reed collaborated once again with British novelist Grahame Greene for this adaptation of Greene’s 1958 darkly comedic spy thriller about M16’s too-eager willingness to believe fictitious reports. Unfortunately, the overall tone of the film is uneven; despite gorgeous cinematography by Oswald Morris:

… good use of authentic locations in Cuba:

… and an all-star cast:

… the story never really coheres. As DVD Savant (actually a fan of the film) describes it:

“It’s an uneven satire about politics and espionage that contrasts a realistic view of conditions in a police state with understated British comedy. The tone veers from deadly intrigue to near slapstick, and Greene’s dialogue tries for too many verbal puns.”

However, Savant later calls out its “authentic background, expressive direction and interesting characters,” and notes that this “politically astute” film “suggests the horrors of Batista’s police state without making any statements about the revolution to come.” Clearly, one either responds to the approach taken here or not — and it didn’t quite work for me. Reading TCM’s article at least helped to explain why Guinness himself comes across in such a bland and uninteresting fashion:

Guinness… had not enjoyed his experience working with Reed. Early on Reed had surprised him by stating that Guinness’ character was really less important than the events happening around him, so there would be few close-ups of the star. When Guinness showed up on the set with ideas for playing the character as an untidy, fussy little man, Reed told him, “We don’t want any of your character acting. Play it straight. Don’t act.” Not knowing what to do with a direction like that, Guinness delivered an undistinguished performance, allowing Coward and Kovacs to steal the film.

Morrow also seems miscast as Guinness’s daughter (despite only being 20 years old in real life, she looks older), and her casual relationship with creepy Kovacs simply makes her seem like even more of a dimwit.

Meanwhile, O’Hara’s character isn’t given nearly enough distinction (she’s truly just a beautiful “Girl Friday”):

… and other supporting players (Coward, Richardson, Ives) are either vague or underdeveloped. I didn’t mind being confused for most of the beginning of the screenplay, given that spy yarns are inherently complex, and the addition of made-up narratives would necessarily complicate things further — but I wasn’t quite able to follow along as dominos began to fall. Perhaps a rewatch would help, though I’m not especially inclined.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Oswald Morris’s cinematography
  • An unusual score by Frank and Laurence Deniz

Must See?
No, though of course Carol Reed fans will certainly want to check it out.


One thought on “Our Man in Havana (1959)

  1. First viewing. A once-must, as a good show and for Guinness’ performance. The assessment states, “Clearly, one either responds to the approach taken here or not…” – and clearly I did. I don’t really find it an uneven film. As well, in spite of Guinness and Reed not responding well to each other, I believe almost any good actor would say to himself, ‘Well, it’s going to be *my* performance up there on the screen. I better do *something*.’ Maybe my overall enthusiasm is rooted in recently becoming a Greene fan (though I’ve not yet tackled this particular novel). As it happens, I bought the blu-ray in its limited release before Twilight Time went out of business – and I’m glad I did, as I plan to see the film again.

    As per my 5/3/20 post in ‘The ’40s-’50s in Film’ (fb):

    “Oh, there are lots of other jobs that aren’t real.”

    ‘Our Man in Havana’ (1959): In pre-revolutionary Cuba, a modest vacuum salesman and single father (Alec Guinness) finds himself concerned about future security for his now-teenage daughter. As fate would have it, he falls into the path of a British Secret Service rep (Noel Coward) who offers him a potentially lucrative position as an agent. His having no experience as an agent is not a deterrent: he needs money; he takes the job. But how will he *do* the job?, he wonders. Easy – or so a German friend (Burl Ives) tells him: make stuff up. So he does… and complicated consequences ensue.

    If I’m not mistaken, this may be the only attempt on the part of author Graham Greene and director Carol Reed to concoct an actual comedy. But to designate the film as such would be misleading. This is the kind of film that seems to slowly insinuate itself until the plot locks in. At that point, it does appear to be quite funny (in a droll sort of way)… until what’s funny turns darker and deadlier.

    I’d never seen this film before – and I loved it! Of course, Guinness is (again) perfection but so is everyone around him. I especially liked Ernie Kovacs (of all people but brilliant) as the Cuban police captain (“One never tortures except by mutual agreement.”) – and Maureen O’Hara gives one of her loveliest performances as the person the Secret Service sends in to be Guinness’ secretary.

    In a teensy role as a professor is Ferdy Mayne (who would go on to star as Count von Krolock in ‘The Fearless Vampire Killers’; I *must* look for him in other films).

    Also of note is the superb – enhanced by blu-ray – work of DP Oswald Morris (who also filmed ‘Moby Dick’, ‘Lolita’ and another espionage classic ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’).

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