Appellate Judge James A. Stewart packs a deadly vacuum cleaner.
"A vacuum cleaner is less effective than a gun."
New Year's Day marked the fiftieth anniversary of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista's departure, which paved the way for the regime of Fidel Castro. Before that happened, author Graham Greene (The Third Man) visited Havana—"this extraordinary city, where every vice was permissible and every trade possible," he said in Ways of Escape, quoted at Greeneland, a tribute site. Greene wrote that he had long been contemplating a story about an agent sending fake reports to British intelligence; now he had found a setting for his latest "entertainment," a term Greene used for his lighter concoctions.
Our Man in Havana saw print in 1958, as Batista's era drew to a close. Director Carol Reed, who brought The Third Man to the screen memorably, quickly went to work on Our Man in Havana, with Greene penning the adaptation. However, events overtook the 1959 movie, as you'll note from the words on the screen at the beginning: "This film is set in Cuba before the recent revolution."
The latest entry in Sony's "Martini Movies" series is a well-timed release of Our Man in Havana.
Facts of the Case
When Hawthorne (Noel Coward, The Italian Job) comes into Jim Wormold's vacuum cleaner shop in Havana, it's easy to tell he wants more than just a Hoover. It's not until Hawthorne catches up to Wormold in a bar that the salesman learns that his new friend's a spy who wants him to join the game. Wormold's reluctant to become a number, No. 59200-5 specifically. "Well, the vacuum cleaners take up a lot of time," he protests. However, his business isn't doing so well, and Hawthorne is offering $150 a week plus expenses. Yeah, that was a lot in the Fifties.
Soon Hawthorne's trying to recruit agents, with no luck. His friend Hasselbacher (Burl Ives, Captains and the Kings) has a better idea: Just "invent" the agents and their reports. "As long as you invent, you do no harm."
It doesn't turn out that way, though. Wormold attracts the attention of Captain Segura (Ernie Kovacs, Bell, Book and Candle), a Batista torturer who wants to marry Milly (Jo Morrow, 13 Ghosts), Wormold's beautiful daughter. His top secret drawings of an Atomic Pile vacuum cleaner have attracted the attention of the PM. The spy agency is sending a secretary and radio operator. Worse yet, someone's threatening and even killing his "agents." Soon, Wormold will have to take bold action.
Our Man in Havana may be just an "entertainment," but scripter Graham Greene and director Carol Reed make sure you know what's up in Batista's Cuba from the start. A solitary swimmer in a rooftop pool is contrasted with the crowds on the street below, complete with lotteries and hustlers. Police roughly question whomever they please and kids hang around anyone who looks like they might have a few bucks. Some real filming in Havana during the early days of the Castro regime gives the movie that extra bit of realism.
For the most part, the movie's a comedy, with Greene's world-weary attitude toward espionage coming through. The dialogue is a droll delight, with exchanges like this:
"There's not much electric power since the troubles began."
"When was that?"
"Oh, about the time Queen Victoria died."
Wormold's a dangerously incompetent spy, but the rest of the agents aren't much better. The radio operator disrupts traffic outside Wormold's store enough when bringing his equipment in that the whole city must know spies are setting up shop. Even as the officials back in London remark on how much the Cuban installation looks like a vacuum cleaner, they're not suspicious.
Alec Guinness initially portrays Wormold as the stereotypical expatriate, hanging out at the bar sipping daquiris with his friend Haselbacher while struggling to make ends meet. He comes across as a meek man early on, following Hawthorne's orders to the letter during their barroom meeting even though he doesn't quite trust his new friend. Later on, as things fall apart, Wormold is clearly frightened, but keeps going on pride. At the end, he turns out to have the right stuff in him after all, creating a surprising dramatic ending. Actually, you might not be surprised if you watch the trailer first, since it uses that lone dramatic scene to tease at something more like The Third Man. Through it all, Guinness keeps viewers rooting for Wormold.
The rest of the cast is strong, even though Our Man in Havana is Guinness' operation from start to finish. As Segura, Ernie Kovacs plays tough, but seems to be concealing a silent admiration for the bogus spy. He also shines in one of the movie's silliest scenes, a chess drinking game between Segura and Wormold in which the players drink the miniature bottles of scotch and whiskey they capture. Burl Ives gets a few dramatic moments as Haselbacher, as when he takes in news of a death that may or may not be a fiction or shares with Wormold his own role in the problem. The performances are low-key, so that the implausibilities and absurdity seems almost realistic. You'll laugh out loud a few times, but the futility of it all will hit home as well.
It looks like there might have been some remastering on the picture; at any rate, I have no complaints. The tropical retro beat of the music by Frank and Laurence Deniz also excels.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Aside from the trailer, a couple of "Martini Minutes" that stir drink recipes into promotions for other films in the series, and a Cuban martini recipe on the disc itself, there's nothing extra here. This may not be The Third Man, but I'd still like to learn more about the book and the movie.
While I've found some great movies worth toasting in the "Martini Movies" series, I'd like to see some features that provide a little background and context, especially considering this year's anniversary for both the movie and the Cuban revolution. Couldn't they at least have dug up some dusty old travelogue of Havana before Castro?
If alcohol fuels your interest in the series, Our Man in Havana may be its best entry, since it even has a drinking game between Ernie Kovacs and Alec Guinness that proves pivotal to the plot. Of course, even if you're a teetotaler, this is still the series' best entry to date.
The movie's worth owning. With the lack of extras, you'll really want to hunt around for a bargain price, though.
Carol Reed, Graham Greene, and Alec Guinness acquit themselves bravely. Sony is instructed to look around in the vaults to find a few extra olives for these "Martini Movies."
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