Our Man in Havana


Our Man in Havana (1959) movie poster

(1959) dir. Carol Reed
viewed: 04/02/09

After reading the novel Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene on the recommendation of a friend, I thought it would be interesting to see this 1959 film version of the story.  Directed by Carol Reed, with whom I am obviously not familiar enough only having seen his classic noir thriller The Third Man (1949) (also adapted from Greene), the film is an interesting counterpoint to the more prior film.

The story is a great comedy of Cold War politics, in which an operative for the British government, here played by the pitch-perfect Noel Coward, seeks out a fellow countryman in Havana, a vacuum salesman and single father, played here by the brilliant Alec Guinness, to be a spy.  The whole thing is about how this poor fellow, needing money for his daughter’s care, gets pulled into this ridiculous situation.  And at the suggestion of his close friend, makes up stories, characters, other spies that he’s recruited, even drawing up a plan of some bizarre futuristic substation (modeled after one of his vacuum cleaners), to feed the hungry British spy circle.

The book is very good and quite funny, and here is an example of an excellent filmic adaptation.  With Noel Coward, Alec Guinness, Burl Ives, Maureen O’Hara, Ernie Kovacs, and Ralph Richardson…it’s kind of like: how could you go wrong?  In the deft and intelligent hands of director Reed, and shot on location in Havana, only shortly after Castro’s revolution, it’s a prime sampling of top notch comic spy stuff.  While it’s not one of those “laugh out loud” or “falling out of your seats” sort of comedies, it’s clever and cutting and the performances are perfect.

And, like the novel (Greene adapted the screenplay himself), the film turns dark toward the end, when all the fantasy spy action gets a little too real, and everyone is believing, people start dying, and the line between the fiction and the actual become utterly enmeshed.

Again, I think this film might be an interesting contrast with Reed’s earlier Greene adaptation The Third Man because whereas that film plays on a more purely dark and villainous world, also shot on location exquisitely, we have this comic debunking and critique of the spy service and orginizational espionage.   It’s a great book, a great movie.

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