OUR MAN IN HAVANA (Carol Reed, 1959)

By harkening back to their coolly corrupt postwar Vienna in The Third Man (1949), even to the point of including a couple of tilted shots in ominous nighttime streets, scenarist Graham Greene and director Carol Reed’s Our Man in Havana, set in the politically sour Cuban metropolis just prior to Castro’s revolutionary overturn, projects an atmosphere, punctuated by a trio of murders, that proves too heavy for the comedy—yes, comedy—that the film purports to be. Marked by as many bad performances as good ones, and with a plot closer to television sitcom than to penetrating political satire, this would be Reed’s worst film if Oliver! (1968), for which he was Oscar-bound, weren’t looming ahead. That said, the film is slyer and more amusing than Stanley Kubrick’s also-looming Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964).
     Alec Guinness wryly plays Jim Wormold, the Havana vacuum cleaner shopowner who finds himself in over his head as a freshly recruited British espionage agent whose initial task is to recruit others under his command. Guinness’s anxious performance suits a name, Wormold, that suggests defeatism and decay. This Wormold, trying to provide for his teenaged daughter, his principal responsibility in life, justifies his moonlighting salary by making up recruitments and falsifying surveillance pictures of newfangled weapons of mass destruction that really exhibit parts of his vacuum cleaners! And the British home office believes him! (Ralph Richardson, as “C,” is alone hilarious.) Oh, dear—he is sent a secretary (Maureen O’Hara, expert, but without a speck of chemistry between her and Guinness), and someone is actually killed when mistaken for being one of his non-existent agents. But I mustn’t go on, because I’m making the film sound funnier than it is.

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