Our Man in Havana (1959) (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) is the third and final collaboration between director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene. In some ways it plays like a sardonic post-script to their great success, The Third Man, in others a transition film between the gritty but heroic espionage thrillers of the forties and fifties and the far more ambivalent and skeptical work of John Le Carre, as seen in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold just a few years later. (Le Carre’s The Tailor of Panama spins an updated version of the same basic story of Havana.) The big difference is tone: Our Man in Havana is a lampoon of international espionage games and the gullible officers running Britain’s MI6 like an old boy’s club. Everyone on their honor and all that.
Alec Guinness is Jim Wormold, the meek British everyman in Batista’s Cuba and a single father trying to keep his pretty, spoiled teenage daughter (Jo Morrow) safe from the wolves prowling the streets of Havana. Reluctantly drafted by a British Secret Service agent (perfectly droll Noel Coward), he finds he’s a lousy agent but a terrific author and, failing any legitimate intelligence, he spins a doozy of a secret agent yarn, complete with a cast of supporting agents (all in need of generous expense accounts) and a secret installation worthy of a James Bond villain. It’s a veritable cash cow but it also brings unwanted attention from the head of British Intelligence (a dryly officious Ralph Richardson) who sense him a staff to expand his operations (including neophyte secretary Maureen O’Hara). The satire of gullible intelligence officers and corrupt politicians (an oily, somewhat sinister Ernie Kovacs as the soft-spoken terror Capt. Segura) take a darker turn when the fantasies spun by Wormold take root in the spy community, leaving real victims in its wake. Our man in Havana a target of enemy agents and his apolitical best friend and drinking buddy, the world-weary German expatriate Dr. Hasselbacher (Burl Ives), gets caught in the middle of the intelligence turf war.
The “Native American Images on Film” series on Turner Classic Movies continues with Thunderheart, the Michael Apted-directed 1992 Hollywood thriller inspired by the real-life events at Wounded Knee in the early 1970s, when the collision of members of the American Indian Movement and the FBI agents became a weeks-long siege. I write about it for TCM here.
Val Kilmer puts on the Raybans to play taciturn and loyal FBI agent Ray Levoi, whose Indian ancestry (Levoi’s father was part Sioux) are all the qualifications the feds care about when they send him to investigate a murder on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The young, handsome Kilmer had attained the status of movie star the previous year playing Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s The Doors (1991). While make-up adds just a hint of duskiness to his complexion, Kilmer’s own ancestry includes Cherokee blood. Levoi, however, has spent his life denying his Indian blood and the assignment only rouses his resentments (one local dubs him the “Washington redskin”). It, of course, makes him a prime candidate for a spiritual reawakening, guided by dedicated tribal cop Walter Crow Horse (the dryly witty Graham Greene, who was previously an Academy Award® nominee for his supporting role in Dances with Wolves ) and the tribal medicine man Grandpa Sam Reaches (Ted Thin Elk). As Ray digs into the murder case, he discovers the evidence doesn’t support the FBI’s theory, which has blamed the murder on the local leader of the militant Aboriginal Rights Movement, or ARM (a fictionalized version of the real-life American Indian Movement, aka AIM). More telling, Ray’s new boss Frank “Cooch” Coutelle (Sam Shepard) doesn’t even care, which sends Ray digging even deeper into a conspiracy that challenges his allegiance to the FBI (“the Federal Bureau of Intimidation,” as Walter dubs them).
I wrote a feature review of Sony’s DVD release of Carol Reed’s Our Man in Havana, starring Alec Guinness as a meek vacuum cleaner salesman in Havana who concocts fictional intelligence reports for the British Secret Service, for Turner Classic Movies.
Our Man in Havana, the third and final collaboration between director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene, makes a sardonic post-script to their great success, The Third Man. Like that film, it deals in espionage in an exotic hotspot (in this case, Havana, just as revolution was brewing in Cuba’s jungles) where numerous world powers had interests, and features an innocent who manages to get in the middle of international scuffles. The difference is in the tone. Our Man in Havana is a dryly witty satire of the spy game.
There’s a deft wit to Greene script, which Guinness and the cast play perfectly, and plenty of humor at the expense of gullible intelligence officers. But the film takes a darker turn when the fantasies spun by Wormold take root in the spy community. His phony agents are based on real people, and one of them turns up dead. His apolitical best friend and drinking buddy, the world-weary German expatriate Dr. Hasselbacher (Burl Ives), gets caught in the middle of the intelligence turf war. And Wormold himself becomes a target of enemy agents and, out of necessity, becomes the real life espionage player he’d been posing on paper all this time. He’s almost too good and confident in the transition, belying his amateur status and everyman vulnerability. But like Wormold himself, the film gives in to the fantasy to let him be a hero.
I write about Carol Reed’s beautiful The Fallen Idol for Turner Classic Movies. It’s one of the director’s masterpieces and his first collaboration with Graham Greene and it was a pleasure to revisit the film and become once again enthralled in the perfection of it.
From the opening shot of The Fallen Idol, we see the world through the eyes of a young boy on the verge of adolescence. Phillipe (Bobby Henrey, a non-actor in his screen debut) is the son of the French Ambassador to England and lives in the ambassadorial mansion in London. From the living quarters on the second floor, he can be found peering through the banister down into the grand entry room below, a space where public and private life converge and a stage where the adult world plays out for his not quite comprehending eyes and ears. The staff below bustles about to prepare for the ambassador’s absence over the weekend, oblivious to Phillipe above except for the efficient and thoroughly professional butler Baines (Ralph Richardson), who always makes time for a friendly wink and a conspiratorial glance up to Phillipe. The boy adores Baines, who regales him with grand adventure stories from his time in darkest Africa, and looks forward to his weekend with Baines while his parents are away. Baines dotes on the boy who is otherwise friendless in residence. Mrs. Baines (Sonia Dresdel) is another matter, an authoritarian housekeeper who acts like a strict, disciplinarian headmistress around Phillipe. He quite understandably keeps his pet snake, MacGregor, hidden from Mrs. Baines, and the warm, accepting Baines conspires to keep Phillipe’s secret and keep the harmless snake safe from his wife, with whom relations are visibly strained and formal.
In close collaboration with Reed, Greene expanded and reworked the original story. He turned the murder into an accidental death which the boy only sees in glimpses and fragments. Convinced he’s witnessed his best friend commit murder, he’s wracked with fear but beholden by loyalty, and he unwittingly imperils his friend as he lies to cover up the deed. Reed suggested turning the pre-war British mansion of the story into the residence of the French ambassador in London, which not only explains the opulence of a lavish household with servants in post-war England but also sets it apart from the outside world even more literally – it’s technically foreign soil. Phillipe is spelled in the French fashion but always pronounced as the British “Philip” by the butler Baines and the rest of the staff. Greene added the snake, MacGregor, which is a marvelous, boyish touch and suggests a touch of symbolism: there is a snake in the mansion that is this boy’s Eden, but it isn’t MacGregor. It was a happy collaboration and a fortuitous partnership for both of them: Greene found in Reed a sensitive and savvy collaborator who understood the essentials of a good story and the art of writing for the screen, and the two worked together on two subsequent occasions: Greene wrote The Third Man (1949) and adapted his comic thriller Our Man in Havana (1959) for Reed. The Fallen Idol remained his favorite of his films.