This week’ film gem is a little known spy film by British director Sir Carol Reed “Our Man in Havana” (1959). It has the unique collaboration of the same writer/director team of the now-classic film “The Third Man” (1949) and the Oscar-winning best actor from 1957’s “Bridge on the River Kwai”—Alec Guinness.
It’s an adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1958 novel that satirizes the British secret service. Yet even more fascinating is the fact that it was actually shot in Havana, shortly after Fidel Castro’s take-over of the Batista government and months before Cuba aligned with the USSR, with Castro’s approval (possibly because the story mocks Western intelligence).
Set in Cuba just before the revolution, “Our Man in Havana” concerns a mild-mannered vacuum cleaner salesman, Jim Wormold (Guinness) who gets recruited by the secret service for his unique connections to the local people. Sir Noel Coward, (famed British playwright and sometimes actor) plays Mr. Hawthorne, a British secret service agent who recruits Wormold. The rest of the film’s all-star cast includes Ralph Richardson as Agent “C,” the head of the secret service; Burl Ives as a German doctor, Ernie Kovacs as Cuban police Captain Segura, known as “the Red Vulture” and Maureen O’Hara as agent Beatrice Severen.
Wormold is also a single father, whose wife left him years before. He wants only the best for his beautiful teenaged daughter Milly (Jo Morrow), possibly sending her to a finishing school in Switzerland and then marriage to someone who will settle elsewhere beside Cuba.
One day the dark-suited Hawthorne shows up at his vacuum store pretending to be interested in the new “Atomic Pile cleaner machine” and offers fellow Englishman Wormold a unique opportunity.
“We have to have a man in Havana, recruiting agents, keeping an eye on things, economics…” He sweetens the deal by adding, “$150 per month, plus expenses, tax-free.” From now on Hawthorne demands, “I’ll be known to you as 59200.” “You will be 59200/5.” The bureaucratic agent sets Wormold up with invisible ink and a codebook, and Wormold is encouraged to get recruits from the country club where his daughter frequents when she rides her horse.
One evening Wormold meets agent Severen at a country club dinner party for his daughter and Severen announces she’s been sent from London to be his “secretary”—but actually to help him contact other agents. They soon develop a liking for each other. Captain Segura becomes more suspicious of Wormold when he has Dr. Hasselbacher’s phone tapped.
Ultimately others in the British secret service become more concerned about their man in Havana when he kills a rival agent Hubert Carter, but instead of admitting their blunders they honor Wormold and return him to Great Britain.
Throughout “Our Man in Havana” there is a sign hanging next door to Wormold’s shop saying “Bond”. It is not a reference to Ian Fleming’s iconic spy, but to a famous men’s clothier that was Cleveland based but known around the world.
For younger viewers mostly aware of Guinness’ famed Obi-Wan Kenobi from “Star Wars,” you’ll be somewhat surprised by his fine skill at comedy. During the 1950s, Guinness was initially known as a skilled comedic actor in films like, “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” where he actually played eight distinct roles, or the hilarious “The Lavender Hill Mob” and “The Lady Killers.”
Oswald Morris’ crisp black and white photography shot mostly in the streets of Cuba add a touch rich atmosphere and realism to the film.
In Guinness’s 1985 memoir “Blessings in Disguise” he recalls a rather uneventful but historic meeting with Castro, where Fidel wondered why the talented Guinness did not attempt to speak Spanish to him. Alec’s reply to the Cuban leader was “Your English is far better than my poor efforts at Spanish.” Castro visited the set of the film on May 13, 1959, according to another source.
The film’s enjoyable, rather amusing high-brow comedy style accents the film ever so nicely. The New York Times’ original review called “Our Man in Havana” “charmingly humorous espionage spoof…Good show, if you can go along with the drollery of the conniving and the bland idea that espionage might be as foolishly ironic as it is dangerous.” Sixty years later, I think most viewers will find this film quite enjoyable.