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

Fallen Idol (1948)

fallen-idol-poster-1948Fallen Idol is a fascinating film for how it develops inner turmoil. It’s earnestly interested in the point of view of a child and as such, it functions on multiple levels –that of both kids and adults. Philippe’s (Bobby Henrey) home is the embassy as his father is a French ambassador who is always away on the job. So Phil’s a little boy who is perpetually in the care of servants. Namely the authoritarian Mrs. Baines (Sonia Dresdel) and her good-natured husband (Ralph Richardson).

It seems like he has a fairly cushy life, able to have his run of the embassy, play all the time, and eat three square meals a day. He diverts himself with numerous trifles like any good little boy would, including an affinity for his pet snake McGregor. Meanwhile, Mrs. Baines is constantly pestering and prodding him to behave. Simultaneously Mr. Baines continually affirms his boyish nature. It’s no secret which one Philippe likes better.

This triangular relationship is vital to the film but it’s only the beginning. Because Mr. Baines, rather understandably, is unhappy in his marriage. It’s not working out for him and he has met another woman (Michele Morgan) who he dearly loves and who loves him. Of course, the one moment he goes off to meet her in confidence, the mischievous, prying eyes of Phillip find them, but he does not fully comprehend what he is seeing — what they are talking about in hushed voices — as he nibbles away at tea cakes and pastries.

The nuances of the events at hand are earnest between two deeply concerned adults who fear never being able to be together. But again, as a young boy, Philippe doesn’t quite understand the subtext of all that is going on. How could he? And Carol Reed does a wonderful job of conveying this through some simple camerawork throughout the story. It always seems like Philippe’s point of view is either from the distant staircase looking down at the figures below or he is looking up at the adults who stand above him. There’s always a pronounced distance, a gap that must be forged. And all of this suggests just how far removed he is from the events swirling around him.

At this juncture, Mr. Baines asks him to keep their secret and they go on an escapade to the zoo together. Philippe is happy with the reptile house and other animals, while Mr. Baines is soaking up his final moments with Julie before she goes away. She can’t bear to not be with him. Still, Phil is uninterested in the whole business.

But later, when some words slip out, Mrs. Baines puts two and two together. Now she is asking Phillip to keep their own little secret. He’s been asked to hold onto two conflicting secrets now and he doesn’t quite know how to respond. His mind’s convictions about lying and truth-telling are tied up in knots and they remain that way for the entire film.

The final act is even tenser as Baines must cope with the tragic aftermath of his wife’s death. She was confronting him about his love but that’s hardly the most interesting part. At this point, Phil thinks he knows what he saw and he doesn’t want to tell on Baines. In his eyes, Baines killed someone, but he likes Baines. There’s this troubling moral dichotomy that’s created in his little head. When the police inspector comes in digging around for the truth, the boy’s no help and Baines’ story is highly suspect at best.

Everything young Philippe does in an attempt to help only serves a hindrance for the man he idolizes. His allegiances were manipulated and by the end, his cries to be listened to are all but disregarded. When all is done he scampers down to his returning mother joyously. Completely ignorant of the bullet that Baines has dodged. It’s the perfect ending, summing up a film about a child embroiled in something far above what he can even fathom.

He doesn’t quite understand that Julie is not Mr. Baines niece. He doesn’t know what Mr. Baines meant when he was bickering with his wife about his freedom. Or even that the lady that he clings so closely to in the police station is a woman of the street. That’s what makes the performance that Reed teases out of his actor that much more impressive because it gets that obliviousness and confusion across perfectly.

In truth, Reed’s film brings to mind two other classics of the 1940s from British masters.   The first is Rebecca with Mrs. Baines asserting her domestic dominance rather like the unnerving Mrs. Danvers played by Judith Anderson. Furthermore, the heartbreaking nature of infidelity in this film also calls to mind David Lean’s heart-wrenching work with Brief Encounter. However, again, what sets Fallen Idol apart is the perspective of a child. It’s an innocent way of trying to make sense of the world. A world that is so often confused, ambiguous, and complex.  The beauty of being young is that same naivete. So much has gone on and Phil has seen and done so much. Yet when his mother is home, he cannot help but be happy to see her. All else fades away. That innocence remains to the end.

4.5/5 Stars

Review: The Third Man (1949)

5873f-thirdmanusposterI am continually drawn to The Third Man for a number of reasons, which I would love to highlight right now. To begin with, the opening credits come up and yet behind them is the rather odd image of a row of strings. As an audience, this is our first introduction to the zither, the twangy instrument that will create the strangely haunting score over the course of the film.

Then, we are fed a casual bit of narration that quickly throws us into the story of western writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), as he heads to Vienna to meet his old school chum Harry Lime (to be revealed later!). It seems safe to say that World War II was not good to the city, which is a mixture of ruins, cobblestone streets and ornate architecture that lend itself to an uneasy feeling. In other words, what happens in Vienna, stays in Vienna. Everything is zoned off nicely, and the authorities try and stay out of each other’s way.

Martins learns soon enough that Lime is dead and yet it doesn’t add up. His best friend was hit by a car driven by a colleague, carried off the road by two friends, and diagnosed by his personal doctor who all happened to be present. Martins is urged by a Major Calloway to not get involved. Heading home would be a much better solution.

But of course, Martins does not heed this advice. He meets Harry Lime’s girl, the beautiful but somber Anna (Valli), who has her own troubles with the authorities. Further investigation points to a mysterious third man who a local porter saw from his window. The old man winds up dead and soon Martins himself is threatened. Calloway encourages him to leave again before reluctantly disclosing that Lime was dealing diluted penicillin on the black market. That batch ultimately killed and harmed many a patient.

It’s a whole different ballgame now. But wait, after dropping in on Anna, Martins sees a shadowy figure out her window and in a dramatic entrance Lime shows his face. A magnificent magic trick and fully alive. The next day on a Ferris wheel Lime’s true character comes out. All I will say is that he would have been at home in the Borgia family.

Now Holly is conflicted about helping the police snag his old friend or heading home, wiping his hands of the whole ordeal. He finally reluctantly swings a deal because of his love for Anna. Plans are set and soon a trap is sprung for Lime. He is tipped off by a still faithful Anna, but the police force him to make his getaway into the sewers. That is where it all goes down for good. The next day Holly Martins waits at the side of the road for Anna. She slowly makes her way in his direction and without any acknowledgment, she keeps on walking on. She is now out of the picture and all he can do is light yet another cigarette. That is the cold and painful ending to The Third Man, a perfectly suited story for Post-War Vienna and a great Film-Noir.

We become constantly aware of this film’s almost painful camera angles, at times, which slightly distort scenes and close in on faces. It is an unnerving feeling for the viewer which is only compounded by the bleak and shadowy cinematography, along with the haunting music. It all adds up to a perfectly chilling composition. The story feels starkly real too thanks to the on-location shooting and the mixing in of the German with the English. As a non-German speaker, this extra language only furthered my confusion and, at times, my paranoia. Along with Martins, I often could not understand what was going on, causing me to be more and more befuddled.

All in all, although Orson Welles stole the show, both Joseph Cotten and Valli were superb. The two of them had the most screen time and it certainly was not wasted. Whether they were walking or talking they always made for an interesting contrast. Their accents, their demeanor, even their opinions of Lime were often in juxtaposition. I was not a fan of Trevor Howard, but he was not meant to be a likable character. Bernard Lee, on the other hand, had to be my favorite supporting role.

The Third Man is already on my watch list again and for good reason! Well done Carol Reed, Grahame Green, and Anton Karas!

5/5 Stars