Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Our Man in Havana


Here’s something unusual. A comic spy story from Graham Greene. He wrote the screenplay as well as the novel, and it seems the movie had more of a comic touch than the book, which I haven’t read. The cast is terrific: Alec Guinness, Noël Coward, Burl Ives, Maureen O’Hara, Ralph Richardson, and Ernie Kovacs. The story concerns Guinness trying to support a loving daughter with rather expensive tastes, by selling vacuum cleaners in Havana just before the revolution. He needs money badly, and when he is approached by Coward to spy for his country, he takes the job, and then invents a lot of agents and “secret” material he fabricates himself by making drawings of various vacuum cleaner parts stuck together haphazardly, which could easily be seen as some sort of nuclear installation high in the hills. The boffins back in Blighty like his material so much they send him a secretary (Maureen) and a radio man. This makes the whole gig a lot harder to pull off.

One of the attractions is getting a look at Cuba, where this was filmed just after the revolution, with Castro’s approval. It looks like a happening place, in widescreen black and white. One of the bad guys is chauffeured around in a 1958 Mercury just like the first car I drove regularly in my high school days.

It’s very funny in an understated British way. He displays a lot of ingenuity in keeping all the balls in the air, but inevitably it turns more serious when some of his “agents” begin to be killed, still unaware they were ever agents for anyone. There’s a leak somewhere. Finally he is caught out, confesses, and is shipped back to England to face the music. But … all the people in the Caribbean section of the Secret Service bought into this stuff so thoroughly that they realize their heads will roll, too, if it ever all comes out, so everything is shredded or burned, and Alec is given a substantial pension and an O.B.E. Which, come to think of it, is probably just how it would actually happen in the filthy, stupid Cover Your Ass culture of international spying.