Our Man in Havana (1959) and Vacuums in The Atomic Age

our man in havana alec guinness vacuum

Because of the renewed partnership of Grahame Greene and director Carol Reed, it’s difficult not to feel an inclination to compare Our Man in Havana with The Third Man from a decade prior. If you wanted to go out on a limb, you could make the case the earlier film beget this film, at least in a cultural sense.

A post-war world divvied up between Allied powers has evolved into a Cold War with a constant chafing between crumbling imperialist footholds, rising revolutionaries, and the tustling of Western and Soviet superpowers out to establish their doctrines.

Our Man in Havana does not make any bold claims about its purposes. In fact, the movie even begins with a small caveat. Fidel Castro has already taken over Cuba — he even visited the on-location shoot — but it’s made clear this story took place before the Revolution. It’s not that those were more stable times or even simpler, but they were on the cusp of one of Cuba’s most cataclysmic changes.

Because even months after filming was complete, Castro would make his fateful decision to side with the Soviets, therefore pitting himself against the Americans (and probably the British) setting up the confrontation over the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

Again, Our Man in Havana makes no claims at this kind of scope. Nevertheless, it’s important when we consider the implications of a story as ludicrous as this one. First off, Alec Guinness is the quintessential British vacuum cleaner salesman in Havana, Cuba.

He feels hopelessly out of place in this world on the edge of great cultural change. Jim Wormold is no earth-shattering, transatlantic figure even as his best friend is a fellow transplant, Dr. Hasselbacher (Burl Ives). Our protagonist’s chipper teenage daughter Milly (Jo Morrow) calls him “invincibly ignorant” and hardly in a critical sense. He’s not offended by the words either. Noting he’s never been a good Catholic. However, there’s something striking about her words pulled directly from Greene’s story.

Maybe it has to do with this kind of naivete — his good-natured, child-like perspective on the world — because the comedy flows from a man like him being embroiled in the international espionage of the Cold War. After all, it was an event in itself that was played off as a conflict between a religious and an areligious society. What it showed more conclusively were our universals blindspots and the shortcomings on either side.

Our Man in Havana purposefully establishes its world with a raised-eyebrow lampooning of the snooty British secret service represented by such equitable British gentlemen as Noel Coward and Ralph Richardson. They take to their roles splendidly.

In their care, the lowly Wormold, who never had a thought of espionage in any form, has become a vital part of the British spy network. As a result, Guinness becomes part secret agent, part science fiction writer, as he dreams up fanciful bits of intel to feed his stodgy superiors.

He even provides schematics and some of his most ingenious drawings inspired by The Hoover. Coincidentally, this was a plot partially recycled in a Hogan’s Heroes episode. To be fair, vacuums being mistakenly passed off as a superweapon is a memorable trope.

our man in havana maureen o'hara

The crucial pieces begin with Wormold. To be clear he doesn’t have an ounce of malintent in his body.  He knows no other way to assuage these chaps, and he wants to make them happy so he obliges as best as he knows how. The joke is how everything becomes blown out of proportion. Soon he’s joined by his own personal secretary (the always lovely Maureen O’Hara) and a radio operator named Rudy.

At the same time, a local tyrant, Captain Segura (Ernie Kovacs feels slightly miscast in the part), has taken a particular interest in the vacuum salesman. First, because of some of his known associates and then because of his pretty daughter. He does his best to make her acquaintance.

As an outright thriller, it would be hopeless to expect Our Man in Havana to replicate the comparable successes of The Third Man, although this is probably the closest Carol Reed ever got. However, it also proves to be a forerunner or at least an early entry in the Bond-ignited spy film craze. Its comic sensibilities anchored by the always dry, forever congenial hapless wit of Alec Guinness are what make it stick.

One line delivered as dry as a Bond martini makes the claim that the new superweapon “Will make the H bomb conventional.” After all, who was ever afraid of something that suddenly loses all of its novelty? It becomes mundane. It’s lines like these that progressively make the farce feel all the more absurd, and with the passage of time, more incongruous and intriguing. Because as alluded to before, the Cold War was still very much in a state of flux in the Caribbean petri dish of Cuba. Soon it would be a battleground of the proxy wars for generations.

Likewise, Wormold’s fabrications are given credence by people in power such that white lies become established reality, incurring all these bizarre real-world consequences, sending him spinning in all directions. In one sequence he’s joined by Ms. Severn (O’Hara) as they look to reach out to one of his “contacts” — a local bellydancer. Guinness mucks it up as per usual only to bubblewrap his “agent” so they can take her out the back window and help her escape the authorities.

Then, you have such disparate situational hijinks as vacuum-cleaning conventions bookended by sudden murder. It reaches such a dizzying inflection point, there is no recourse but to fess up. Wormold is prepared for the consequences. The final joke comes in the utter lunacy of the conclusion. Powers that be would never dare admit how horribly they’ve botched the situation. That would never do!

In the end, since the flavor of Vienna and Cuba have their own particular sense of milieu and culture, I rarely found myself reverting back to The Third Man. There was one moment of commonality, however, right near the end of the movie. Once more it’s a funeral sequence. It’s a different sort of funeral where the factions, cross-sections, and localities are tangled and aligned in such a curious way.

And Guinness gets a postscript of sorts, returning to the British Isles wary of what he will return home to. His ever-vivacious daughter points out the window asking about the formidable castle down below; he notes the Tower of London and slumps down in his chair — a reminder of coming attractions. That’s where the crown stashes its most incorrigible traitors.

What makes The Spy Who Came In From The Cold such a standout Cold War film is how utterly merciless it is in its conclusions. There is no other way to look at it. Our Man from Havana vies for the completely opposite approach with an equally telling result.

We leave our hero in the cheeriest of outcomes only to question the state of the world and the structures around him. Really, they’re one and the same — leading the audience to question — whether through unsentimental drama or out-and-out farce, how are we supposed to make sense of the atomic age? It’s utterly nonsensical.

4/5 Stars

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