Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Carol Reed | Our Man in Havana

inventing the enemy
by Douglas Messerli

Graham Greene (screenplay, based on his novel), Carol Reed (director) Our Man in Havana / 1959, USA 1960

Growing out of the late 1950s and early 1960s cold-war hysteria, Our Man in Havana takes a comic look at British intelligence and spy-laden intrigues of James Bond and other later incarnations. But, in some respects, Carol Reed's seemingly light satirical version, is far darker than the others simply because of the diffidence of the central character, James Wormold (Alec Guinness). A vacuum cleaner salesman in pre-revolutionary Havana, Wormold is having a hard time making a living. He has a pretty daughter (Jo Morrow) whose education and penchant for lavish spending demands deep pockets. In one of the earliest scenes, the selfish Milly has just bought herself a saddle and horse, along with a need for a place to ride it, to say nothing of its feed and care. Coincidently, Wormold is visited by a "secret" operative, Hawthorne (Noel Coward), who parades through the city—much like the mad Englishman of his famous song—dressed mid-day in natty attire and followed by a gaggle of young boys. Pretending an interest in Wormold's vacuum cleaners, he sounds out the salesman about the possibility of serving as "our man in Havana," a man on the lookout for suspicious activities. If nothing else Hawthorne has perfect timing.

     Their later meeting in the bathroom of a nearby bar continues to mock Hawthorne's role as an operative, as he runs water in all the sinks and lures Wormold into a cubicle like he was about to commit a sexual act instead of simply informing him that his code name will be 559200 strike 5. Coward's public homosexuality further makes ridiculous the notion of Hawthorne's ability to cover things up!

     Now suddenly Wormold has a regular income, is able to join the country club, and throw his daughter the kind of birthday party which will continue to spoil her. But what does a spy do? And how can he attain further operatives? Without a pang of regret, Wormold decides to simply make them up, using the names of club members and other slight acquaintances. The London service, headed by "C" (Ralph Richardson) is delighted with his success. When Wormold further thickens the stew with imaginary drawings—based mostly on his vacuum cleaner equipment—of supposed rocket-launchers and other dangerous machines, he is paid even greater sums, finally allowing himself and his daughter the life she demands.

      That she has also attracted the eye of the local Cuban chief of police, Captain Segura (Ernie Kovacs)—known as a man who "beats his prisoners, but...never touches them"—further complicates things and draws even more attention to Wormold. The arrival of a secretary, Beatrice (Maureen O'Hara) and radioman heats the situation even further; Wormold now must work harder still to maintain his deceit.

     Havana is played for all its tropical atmosphere, as a world of dark events and strange goings-on. Wormold's best friend is a German, whom we later discover worships Bismarck in the way others had Hitler. When he is murdered, it seems that the weave of international intrigue is not simply something Wormold has "made up," but a mysterious reality that endangers his own life. Of course that is precisely the point, intrigue and paranoia only lead to further intrigue and paranoia; imaginary enemies eventually become real ones.

      Fearing for his life, Wormold is forced to reveal the truth of his situation, admitting the facts to Beatrice. Called to London, Wormold, together with "C" and Hawthorne, agrees to fabricate yet one more tale: the missiles have been "dismantled," honors bestowed upon Wormold, and he is given a London job—teaching espionage classes. Now he can send his daughter away to school in Switzerland and keep her out of the hands of Captain Segura.

     In short, having enemies, so it turns out, is beneficial to everyone. It is friends who are the dangerous folk. But then, Senator McCarthy had already showed us that!

Los Angeles, March 7, 2012

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