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2 reviews, 1 rating

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Our Man in Havana
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by Jay Seaver

"A witty cold war satire."
5 stars

When I think of Carol Reed and Graham Greene, "funny" isn't the first adjective that comes to mind, which makes "Our Man in Havana" an even more pleasant surprise - it's a light-hearted Cold War romp that remains funny even as elements of genuine danger and maybe even a hint of romance creep into it. That's not a total surprise; Alec Guiness had a real knack for giving dark comedy a light touch, and he excels at it here.

Guinness plays Jim Wormold, an English vacuum cleaner salesman in Batista-regime Cuba who is not selling quite enough vacuum cleaners to pay for his beloved daughter Milly's private schooling, much less her expensive tastes. Help soon arrives in the form of Mr. Hawthorne (Noel Coward), who oversees MI-6's intelligence-gathering operations in the Caribean and offers Wormold a stipend to be the Service's man in Havana, with additional monies available for any agents he recruits. Wormold has no luck finding men to work for him, until his friend Dr. Hasselbacher (Burl Ives) suggests he simply make them up. It works splendidly - too splendidly in fact, as it prompts headquarters to send him an assistant (Maureen O'Hara), police Captain Segura (Ernie Covacs) to start focusing almost as much attention on him as on Milly (Jo Morrow), and genuine spies to start attacking the people that they deduce are Wormold's agents.

The story is absurd, and is played as such almost from the beginning - Hawthorne appears on the scene in an impeccably tailored suit that is terribly conspicuous in the tropics, and the characters comment on just how ludicrous the situation is at nearly every turn. As silly as it is, though, it never seems quite impossible: Maybe Hasselbacher would suggest this, and maybe Wormold would try it, and then maybe Hawthorne would buy it. The odds of all three happening are low, but Reed and Greene do a good job in making sure that each unlikely act makes the next a little more plausible. It's a big help that they don't stretch things out long enough to make the Secret Service look like complete idiots; flimsy lies fall apart much like you'd expect them to.

They've got Alec Guinness to sell it, too. Guinness gives Wormold all the qualities needed to not only make the story work, but to make it funny: A shocked propriety when crazy ideas are first proposed, a sort of bemused happiness when things actually start to work, and just enough basic decency that we expect him to do the right thing when push comes to shove, although not so much that his greed won't put up a fight. He does more with a raised eyebrow than many comic actors manage with reams of gags.

He's teamed with a crew of funny people. Maureen O'Hara's Beatrice Severn is such a perfect match for him that the film doesn't even have to write a romance; she's crisp and professional but not stuffy. She believes in her work but more importantly she believes in believing in things, so she'll stand by Wormold as he tries to make things right. Noel Coward and Ralph Richardson trade frustrated banter when they realize just what Wormold has done. Ernie Covacs makes Segura slimy without making him seem dishonest; his corruption is out for all to see, and he probably has a good idea that Milly Wormold is making a fool of him. Burl Ives is a grand, sad presence as Hasselbacher.

The filmmakers chose just the right time to shoot this film - Castro had just seized power, but hadn't yet thrown in with the Soviet Union - so they were able to manage some location shooting, as well as catch a quick moment in time when the idea of a fantastical superweapon being built in Cuba could be seen as a big goof, rather than a major threat. The story does take the consequences of this kind of deception seriously, but never makes things so dark that the movie stops being fun.

Carol Reed's prior collaborations with Graham Greene were classics - "The Third Man" and "The Fallen Idol" - and decidedly more serious than this. Comedy can be even trickier than drama, though, and the pair manages to hold their own in that arena, too.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=15446&reviewer=371
originally posted: 01/18/07 11:18:18
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  27-Jan-1960 (NR)

  N/A (PG)


Directed by
  Carol Reed

Written by
  Graham Greene

  Alec Guinness
  Burl Ives
  Maureen O'Hara
  Ernie Kovacs
  Noel Coward
  Ralph Richardson

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