Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.
A sly commentary on the espionage of the British government during the beginning of the Cold War, Our Man in Havana is oh-so-typically British in its sense of humor about a situation that actually would turn out to be a historical turning point in relations between the countries, written as the Cuban Missile Crisis. A situation particularly troubling to America when Castro began mounting Russian missile sites witching 100 miles of Florida’s border, in this film is shown as being affected by the seemingly frivolous actions of Alec Guiness as a vacuum salesman looking for a way to keep his High School-aged daughter happy.
In Havana as the Cold War begins, displaced Brit Jim Wormald (Alec Guiness) ekes out a living as a vacuum salesman living above his shop and trying to keep up with his daughter’s expensive tastes. When Hawthorne (Noel Coward), a British intelligence agent recruits him as a spy, Wormald feels completely out of his element but goes along because Hawthorn pays him so much money to find others who can spy for the government. When Wormald fails to recruit spies, he falsifies contacts and information to send back to Britain to make sure the paychecks keep coming in. When the head of Police Capt. Segura (Ernie Kovacs) becomes suspicious of Wormald’s identity he investigates and becomes very close with Wormalds’ daughter Milly (Jo Morrow), and when counter spies come gunning for the vacuum cleaner salesman, he discovers his real mettle in a comic climatic battle of wits.
It’s possible that the humor sitting so close to reality in this film may get by the viewer undetected. From what we know about the spy activity in Cuba the casual way that Wormold goes about his job seems like ‘why not’? Chalk this up to that ever-dry British sense of humor which to Americans always seems like not set up well enough to really engender a belly laugh, which is the touchstone for what’s really funny in the Yanks point of view.
Many hoped the film would be a return of popularity for director Carol Reed whose most popular creative output occurred from 1947 beginning with Odd Man Out, continuing in 1948 with The Fallen Idol, and culminating with the over-popular The Third Man in 1949. Each of these films exhibits the Reed signature and established the Brit as one of those meticulous directors who creates narrative films that stem from deep character motivation. For many, Reed possessed a fine hand working with actors which makes all his films gleam with an inner glow of performances, but that attention to depth doesn’t help the light attention needed for a film like Our Man in Havana, which succeeds on a sarcastic level out of synch with true character motivation.
The performances are all uniformly pitch perfect while going over the top at the same time. Alec Guinness with his nuanced vacuum cleaner salesman Jim Wormold delivers a quiet straight character-driven performance and never overworks the dialogue. Burl Ives plays Dr. Hasselbacher like an avuncular teddy bear who offers advice to Wormold including the small bit of logic that his British spy bosses don’t know what a secret is and what isn’t, so anything the vacuum salesman brings to them is considered by them as valuable.
Noel Coward as the prissy spook Hawthorne who recruits Guinness’ Jim Wormold plays the part a little too broadly but effectively to set a sufficient high comic tone for the film. Just Coward’s casting in the movie makes a statement about what this filmmaker sees as a valuable presence of Britain in Cuba as Coward’s career rested largely on his comedies of manners Blithe Spirit, and Around the World in Eighty Days and his sizable career as a stage performer, playwright, and high-profile personality. The same goes for Ernie Kovacs who already had a big following as a whacky TV comic whose show pushed the envelope for surreal comedy.
Ernie Kovacs as Capt. Segura and Maureen O'Hara as Beatrice Severn never get a chance to stretch out and really show the stuff that makes them stars in our eyes- under-playing roles was never their strong suits, but they are given good close-ups on camera and add the star power to make the film a substantial feature-length story.
This newly re-mastered print looks great and the range of greys and black-and-white images adds to the feeling that this story is saying more than we can see. An especially tense moment is achieved as Guinness’s Wormold maneuvers a killer into position for dispatch in the dark Cuban streets, and his poker face really comes across when he plays liquor checkers with Kovacs’s Capt. Segura. This is one of those films you’ll want for your collection.
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Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Better than Watching TV
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older