If you’re feeling down because it won’t stop raining outside and you need a good pick me up, then why not watch the movie Our Man in Havana. Based on the book by Graham Greene, who also wrote the screenplay, and well produced and directed by Carol Reed, it is the extraordinary tale of Jim Wormold a vacuum cleaner salesman who unexpectedly becomes a top agent for MI5. Based in Havana, Cuba, not long before the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power, Wormold’s sales are somewhat flat and his earnings are woefully insufficient to pay for all the needs and wants of Milly, his free spending teenage daughter. Alec Guinness gives his usual captivating performance as the hapless Wormold whose social life is limited to drinking rum cocktails at a local bar with the German Dr Hasselbacher, his best friend who with the best of intentions becomes his worst enemy. The good doctor who has few if any patients and Burl Ives plays the part with just the right amount of furtiveness to keep one unsure as to which side he’s really on.
Wormold obtains a financial lifeline when Hawthorne the MI5 Caribbean controller enters the scene. Hawthorne struts around Havana in his black pinstripe suit with matching bowler and umbrella, which is hardly much of a disguise in a place such as Havana but then his usual office is in Whitehall. There’s no doubt Noel Coward who plays Hawthorne would have made a first class civil servant. Nevertheless he offers Wormold a monthly retainer plus expenses to be MI5’s man in Cuba. On top of this Wormold is promised a generous bonus for each agent he employs plus a salary for them.
As his forte is not selecting and training spies, Wormold begins to invent them instead, and much to his delight Whitehall begins sending him money each month in bucket loads. The boffins at MI5 are happy to have more recruits and anyway all the paperwork is complete and procedures have been followed. It never crosses their minds that the new agents don’t exist. The head of MI5 and Hawthorn’s boss is known as ‘C’ and he’s pleased as punch to see his empire and potential influence in the Caribbean on the increase. That gent Ralph Richardson enthusiastically plays ‘C’, who is another member of the bowler hat city brigade.
Now if only Wormold had been content with his new found steady income stream. Unfortunately greed, that human trait, gets the better of him and he begins inventing missions and sends drawings of a huge construction site hidden in the Cuban hills that look like parts of a giant vacuum cleaner. The bosses in Whitehall including the PM want more detail and send him a secretary to help with the workload. So Beatrice arrives on the scene but she’s soon becomes beguiled by him. She is played by the redheaded Maureen O’Hare a strange choice perhaps as she was known as the Queen of Technicolor but the movie is in black and white.
Unwittingly Wormold soon becomes a star in the world of secret agents but this attracts the attention of among others the ‘opposition’ as MI5 refer to those behind the curtain. In great demand with even the local police chief wanting his services as well as his daughter, Wormold has to concentrate on ways to avoid being uncovered as a fraudster and this leads to countless farcical scenes. One such scene is a draughts match where the pieces are liqueur miniatures that have to be drunk by the opponent when taken. Turning down all offers makes him a target instead. Through necessity he doesn’t remain an amusing lightweight character all the time, as to stay alive he must at times be ruthless and show no mercy. This requirement to play a Jekyll and Hyde role but without changing physical appearance made Guinness an ideal choice for the part.
The movie is not a laugh out loud comedy but a humorous tale with moments of serious and murderous drama. I found it compelling viewing and for its time quite topical.