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Our Man in Havana: 03/13/09

Carol Reed and Graham Greene collaborated on a number of films. Their best known collaboration is The Third Man (1949) but my favorite one is Our Man in Havana (1960). Procrastination and budgetary problems ended up putting the filming right at the start of the Cuban revolution and forever changed a little film about a vacuum salesman into something extraordinary.

Graham Greene is no stranger to combining humor, politics and war. The Heart of the Matter set evokes Greene's experiences in Sierra Leon during WWII and it while humorous is a much darker and serious novel from the very beginning. Likewise, The Third Man is set in Vienna in the aftermath of WWII and has its mixture of pulp culture humor and post war-time commentary.

Our Man in Havana, though, starts off both in the book and in the film on a much lighter note. Havana is presented as an out of the way place too off the radar to be of much interest to anyone. Nonetheless, the home office needs a man (spy) there to keep tabs on the local situation in case things hot up. The man sent to recruit a spy, Hawthorne (played by Noel Coward in the film) sees this directive as a complete waste of time and makes a half-assed effort by recruiting James Wormmold (played by Alec Guinness), a vacuum salesman. Likewise, Wormold (who is only ever called James or Jim if the situation is serious enough), doesn't believe anything will ever happen in Havana either but needs the money. To meet his quota, he makes up stories based on local people and submits diagrams based on his vacuums.

Had things gone very differently or the film been made five or ten years earlier, Wormold would have had a few lighthearted scrapes with the local authorities and Hawthorne would have been taught a lesson for his laziness and that would have been that. It would have been a cute parody on Reed and Greene's earlier and more serious films. But that's not what happened about midway through the book and the film the narrative takes a left turn.

Wormold's diagrams of "silos" (actually vacuum hoses) end up being eerie predictions of the near future Cuban Missile crisis. And as the film's opening text states: "This film is set in Cuba before the recent revolution." The story though it takes place before Castro (and Castro and the revolution are never named in the novel) the film was shot after Castro.

If you haven't had a chance to see the film or it's been a while since you've seen it, add it your Netflix queue or buy a copy. Then read the book. Or do it the other way around. But the two really do go together.

Comments (2)

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Comment #1: Saturday, March, 14, 2009 at 06:28:44


I've wanted to read Graham Greene for a long time. This sounds like an interesting book!

Comment #2: Saturday, March 14, 2009 at 17:48:33


I highly recommend Graham Greene. My two favorite novels of his are Our Man in Havana and Monsignor Quixote.

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