Spy Film and Book Double Review: Our Man in Havana (1959)

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Vacuum cleaner salesman turned spy… how bad could it possibly go?

Our Man in Havana (1959) takes us to pre-revolution Cuba on an enjoyable romp through the seedy capital city and epicenter of all debauchery and corruption of the ’50s. The 1959 British Cold War spy film was directed and produced by Carol Reed, and based upon Graham Greene’s classic spy novel of the same name. The film gives us an all-star cast of 1960’s classic actors such as Alec Guinness (yes, Obi Wan), Burl Ives (yes, the snow man in the Rankin/Bass Christmas show), Maureen O’Hara (Miracle on 34th Street), Ralph Richardson, Noël Coward and Ernie Kovacs. Novelist Graham Greene wrote the screenplay version of his novel, so the story tracks very closely with the book, and where it deviates, it does so in order to condense the novel into film format. The film has more levity than the novel, this is obviously done to have a broad market appeal, and robs some of the dark tension in the novel. Since I read the book just before viewing the film, I was expecting a disappointment. I am happy to say, even with more levity, the cinematic adaptation quiet enjoyable.

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Wormold and his long-time friend Dr. Hasselbacher enjoy their traditional two Daiquiris

The story (there are mild spoilers ahead but not plot-ruining ones) follows James Wormold (played by Guinness), a British national who happens to be a vacuum cleaner merchant in Havana. Above his shop, Wormold lives estranged from his wife, but dotes on his lovely 17 year old daughter, Millie. Millie is a handful. Needing money to pay for Millie’s dreams and hopes, and guilty that he has not quite given her what he’d like (and quite manipulated by her as well), Wormold realizes he needs money. Business is slow and Millie’s tastes are getting more costly. He is a prime candidate for a well-paying job when a British Secret Service agent walks in and recruits him to be a spy. Their “man in Havana.”

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“Great military installations” of advanced, unknown weaponry in Cuba’s oriente

Wormold is lured by the money, and is assigned the task of recruiting a spy network so that the British will know what’s happening on the island. But Wormold has no clue how to recruit agents or handle a network. Using his imagination, inspired by his Secret Service-supplied code book (Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare), and crafting reconnaissance drawings of great military installations on teh west end of Cuba based on vacuum cleaner parts, Wormold fabricates a spy network and intelligence reports out of thin air. This provides quite a living for he and Millie. Unfortunately for him, spies often have spies who spy on the spies.

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Segura has a fondness for Millie, and cigarette case covered in human skin.

Wormold’s fabricated spy network turns out to be a little more real than Wormold’s imagination – real people begin turning up dead. Things get dicey and dangerous. But because no one in British intelligence is willing to admit that they were duped by drawings inspired by vacuum cleaner parts, Wormold’s stock goes up in the eyes of the Secret Service. After all, if the other guys (Russians, Americans, Cubans, we never really know) want Wormold and his spy network dead. The conclusion is that Wormold must be quite legit and important. And it must also be true that the strange military installations Wormold imagined and drew picture of must be some enormous and dangerous weapons system.

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Look at this visual mastery! In film school you learn to wet every night scene, this is why. There’s a scrawny cat in here too that really made the whole scene click.

Being important now, Wormold is sent office staff, including Beatrice, a lovely and daring secretary well-trained in the espionage arts. She is, in the book, a far more interesting and adept sidekick than the film’s version. In the film, she is really more of a slowly developing romantic interest for Wormold. She nearly exposes Wormold’s folly several times.

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A wonderful study in values – dense black to gray, well lit character, the gun in focus. Wonderful!

The characters are believable enough and the film includes enough interest and subtlety to be thoroughly enjoyed. It was beautifully filmed and some scenes are magnificent studies in good composition and lighting. Look at some of the screen grabs, outstanding direction!

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Checkers with Bourbon and Scotch bottles. Wormold challenges Segura.

If you are a gun nut, try to figure out what kind of 1911 style pistol Captain Segura carries, and note the line up of Mausers in the police gun case and the Thompsons carried by Segura’s goons. Details matter, and this film is full of them.

Parental Notes – This film is suitable for adults, and for mature youth if the seedy underside of Havana can be explained to them suitably. There is no foul language and only one scene with Wormold and Carter near the end in a tacky bar that has suggestive images due to the cheesy art on the walls. There is, clearly, the implication of prostitution and the suggestive nature of Havana as a place of carnality is presented right in the opening credits, but these things would fly over the heads of youngsters, I believe. This film would have made it on network TV, most vice is suggested rather than crudely depicted, which is refreshing. Evaluate before showing at your family reunion.

41M5AytYrNLAs for the book, if you want a better, more suspenseful story of intrigue, espionage, excellent dialogue and fast-paced spy goodies, Graham Greene’s classic is worth the read. Our Man in Havana is a smaller novel at only 230 or so pages, and its much more detailed and full than the film.The book was one of Graham’s “entertainment books,” meaning he viewed it as less important than his serious works. Thankfully, Graham’s “entertainments” have become classics of the genre. This one actually makes fun of British secret service, poking at their willingness to receive just about any kind of evidence or espionage as truth so long as it came from the field. Embedded in that aim is a lot of subtle humor.

I couldn’t help but smell, taste and see the wonderful scenes, and I found myself reading out loud in dialects and accents. The story is a sensory delight – I feel like I’ve been to pre-Marxist Havana before the nation was ruined. Particularly diabolical in the book is one Captain Segura, he’s a very dangerous man. His love for checkers enables a pivotal game that proves to be a tension-filled climax between he and Wormold. Tense moments pass one after another as the vacuum cleaner salesman-turned-spy uncovers a web of danger.

Wormold is presented at first as a rather weak and easily manipulated man. He turns out to be quite a shrewd fellow, perhaps by chance, perhaps he learns the trade well. He’s certainly much more capable and professional than we initially are led to believe, just as Beatrice, his professional espionage secretary, freely admits. His character blossoms as the tale is spun and the climax creeps closer and closer.

The book is far better suited for giving a fuller sense of chilling suspense and tension than the film. The book is more enjoyable than the film (that is always the case, in my experience), but if you read the book you will enjoy the excellent film even more.

Get this spy classic in book form, and then watch the film. Its a good duo.

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