A murderously funny story.
After delivering the extraordinary one-two-three combo of Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol and The Third Man, director Carol Reed’s career entered a slow decline. The likes of A Kid for Two Farthings, Trapeze and The Key didn’t resonate with critics and audiences. In need of a hit, Reed collaborated with writer Graham Greene on an adaptation of Greene’s satirical spy novel Our Man in Havana, which tells a story of betrayal, vanity and incompetence during the waning days of pre-Revolutionary Cuba.
The film’s protagonist is James Wormold (Alec Guinness, The Bridge on the River Kwai), a humble vacuum cleaner salesman working in Havana. One day, British Secret Intelligence Service Agent Hawthorn (Noel Coward, of all people) enters Wormold’s shop and offers him the opportunity to become the British government’s official Havana operative. Wormold reluctantly accepts the opportunity, but struggles to complete the basic task of recruiting informants to work for him. So, in order to impress his superiors, he invents imaginary agents and even concocts a fictional plot involving the construction of a new rocket-launching pad. Soon enough, he finds that he’s made a mess he may not be able to wriggle out of.
If all of this sounds a little familiar, there’s a good reason. John le Carre’s The Tailor of Panama (given a terrific film adaptation by John Boorman in 1999) is essentially a reworking of the same basic idea: one seasoned spy novelist paying homage to another. I can’t compare the two novels (I’ve only read Le Carre’s), but the film version of Our Man in Havana doesn’t quite pack the same savagely funny punch as Boorman’s film. Even so: it’s a witty, reasonably entertaining film and an awfully interesting political time capsule: dozens of minor script changes were ordered by Fidel Castro, who wanted to ensure that the Batista regime was depicted as negatively as possible.
Not that Cuban politics ever really take center stage, mind you. The location – while very effectively captured by Reed, whose movies always have a strong sense of place – is merely a colorful backdrop for a tale of British bumbling. It’s a film about a man exaggerating his way into a minor international conflict, and subsequently attempting to bluff his way out of it. Those seeking a serious examination of a turbulent moment in Cuban history will be disappointed.
The chief pleasures of the movie are Greene’s elegant dialogue (“A man can smile and be a villain”), Greene’s eye for striking locations and the large cast of colorful character actors. In addition to Guinness and Coward, you get fun supporting turns from Ralph Richardson (playing Coward’s spectacularly dumb boss), Burl Ives (doing lovely work), Maureen O’Hara (better than her generic love interest role needs her to be) and Ernie Kovacs (gleefully chewing the scenery). The film’s climax doesn’t deliver much of a payoff, but the journey there is certainly enjoyable enough.
Our Man in Havana (Blu-ray) offers a crisp, polished 1080p/2.35:1 transfer. The film looks very sharp for its age, and the black-and-white cinematography is consistently handsome. Detail is excellent throughout, black levels are strong and there’s a pleasing layer of natural grain present. No scratches, flecks or other bits of damage are evident. The DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio track is effective, if unremarkable: dialogue is largely well-preserved and the music sounds clean and healthy. Supplements are limited to a music-and-effects track, a trailer and a booklet featuring an essay by Julie Kirgo.
Our Man in Havana isn’t quite on the level of Reed’s best work, but it’s an consistently enjoyable affair that benefits from strong direction and fine performances. Recommended.