Wednesday 23 January 2019

Our Man in Havana (1959)

Director: Carol Reed
Writer: Graham Greene, from his novel of the same name
Stars: Alec Guinness, Burl Ives, Maureen O'Hara, Ernie Kovacs, Noël Coward and Ralph Richardson

Index: 2019 Centennials.

As with House of Bamboo for Robert Stack, I couldn’t resist revisiting another fifties feature that I’ve previously covered for my next centennial review; this time, I’m remembering the pioneering American comedian, actor and writer, Ernie Kovacs, who was born a hundred years ago today in Trenton, NJ. While Kovacs only made a handful of films, just ten of them in the five year period before a car crash took his life in 1962, most would seem to be solid choices for this project. He competed against Jack Lemmon for the ladies in Operation Mad Ball and researched New York witches in Bell, Book and Candle. He tried to stymie Doris Day’s attempts to transport lobsters in It Happened to Jane and ran a backwater radar station in Japan in Wake Me When It’s Over. He worked to steal John Wayne’s gold mine in North to Alaska and played a memorable professional mourner in Five Golden Hours. However, none of those films had a fraction of the pedigree of this comedy, in which he played the polite but lethal Capt. Segura of the Cuban secret police.

Our Man in Havana began life in 1958 as a sardonic spy novel by the acclaimed British writer Graham Greene. It was the last of what he called his “entertainments”, which were popular thrillers as against “novels”, which were serious literary efforts, but it wasn’t entirely fictional. Greene had always been passionate about world travel, often visiting the sort of places that most didn’t: Mexico while it was being secularised; the leper colonies of the Congo Basin and the British Cameroons; and Haiti under the brutal rule of “Papa Doc” Duvalier. These travels led to his sister recruiting him into MI6, the British Secret Intelligence Service, in 1941, where his supervisor was Kim Philby, not yet revealed as a Soviet double agent. While working in counter-espionage, he learned about German agents in Portugal, such as “Garbo”, who created entirely fake reports in order to earn bonuses and generate expenses. He turned this into a film script, set in Estonia just before the Second World War, but it never reached production in that form.

Later, though, having visited Cuba in 1957, where he helped Fidel Castro’s revolutionaries fight the regime of Fulgencio Batista by transporting warm clothing to rebels in the hills, he realised that the country would be the perfect setting for his Estonia script. It was the Cold War in miniature, after all. Castro was a Communist and Batista had been kept in office with substantial military and financial support from the United States. What’s more, it sat in the Gulf of Mexico close to the American coast. What better nation could there be to satirise the trusts and mistrusts of the espionage business by turning a vacuum cleaner salesman into a spy who realises that he can make up whatever threats he likes and his masters will buy it all, hook, line and sinker? And I mean buy in the literal sense. Hilariously, his fictitious reports include secret military weapons in the mountains, thus predating in fiction the very real Cuban Missile Crisis by four years. We know that life imitates art, but sometimes life imitates art imitating life.

Our Man in Havana was an immediate success and Columbia quickly snapped up the film rights, hiring Greene himself to adapt his own novel into a screenplay. After all, he’d already successfully translated his own work into Brighton Rock and The Fallen Idol, the latter of which had landed him an Oscar nomination, and he’d written The Third Man from scratch. Who could do better? Well, the quality didn’t stop with Greene. Columbia put Carol Reed into the director’s seat; he had directed The Fallen Idol and The Third Man, though he wouldn’t win his Oscar until 1968’s Oliver! And just look at the cast! Jim Wormold, the hapless vacuum cleaner salesman, is no less a name than Alec Guinness, in between The Scapegoat and Tunes of Glory and only two years after his Academy Award for The Bridge on the River Kwai. He’s recruited into MI6 by regional spy Ralph Richardson and his boss back in England is Noël Coward. His closest friend in Havana is Burl Ives and the secretary MI6 sends him is Maureen O’Hara. Talk about a cast!
And, of course, there’s Ernie Kovacs, prowling around his city and keeping an eye on anyone suspicious. We’re told that “this film is set in Cuba before the recent revolution”, so he’s clearly a product of the Batista era, but it was actually shot just after Castro seized control of the country, with his permission and with him on set for scenes shot in Havana’s Cathedral Square. Of course, it doesn’t matter a whit who’s in charge of the country; Capt. Segura is in charge of this city and he plans to stay that way. He’s known locally as the Red Vulture, presumably because he hovers around with his eyes open, always ready to swoop down and take advantage of a situation. As the film begins, we find him secreted within the back seat of a car that’s following Ralph Richardson, a small corner of England striding confidently through Havana with his tie, umbrella and pocket handkerchief. Segura has his men stop a large man and ask for his papers, all so he’ll be off balance when he asks him questions about the man he’s following.

Richardson looks like a government minister, even when surrounded by a throng of local musicians, but he’s a spy, Hawthorne by name and “C” by code, and his bailiwick is the entire Caribbean. He’s on a recruiting drive for agents and that’s why he’s making his way to the vacuum cleaner shop run by Jim Wormold to chat with the clueless proprietor, not about the appropriately named latest model that he’s hawking, the Atomic Pile, but more leading subjects like Wormold’s passport and daughter, Milly, a devout Catholic school student with expensive tastes in horses and sixteen year old looks that attract wolf whistles galore. “C” starts accidentally on purpose bumping into Wormold in other places too and, sure enough, soon adds him to his roster as his man in Havana, the $150 a month plus expenses (tax free) being the kicker. After all, how else will Wormold be able to pay for a country club membership and a finishing school in Switzerland? It all sounds like a match made in Heaven. Well, not quite. There’s an important catch, you see.
It’s best put into words by Milly, who’s older than her years, not only because the delightful Jo Morrow was twenty at the time and looked it. “You’re invincibly ignorant,” she tells her father and she’s right. He’s not cut out to be a spy and both we and he find that out when he tries to fulfil his first mission, which is to recruit sub-agents. It’s when he comes clean in despair to his closest friend, a large German doctor called Dr. Hasselbacher, that he’s given a solution: just invent recruits. His imagination takes over and people he encounters suddenly become part of the narrative he’s conjuring up. He draughts intricate drawings of imaginary installations found in the mountains by a pilot named Montez, and sends them off up the chain, telling Milly that he’s taken up writing science fiction. These look glorious but, of course, they’re going to be examined in detail by technical experts. Hilariously, it’s an offhand comment from the prime minister that rumbles Wormold to Hawthorne: “It looks like a vacuum cleaner.”

Here’s where Graham Greene demonstrates his mastery of comedy, because Wormold’s flights of fancy are just the setup. Now, “C”, testing his worst case scenario theory, sends his man in Havana a secretary and a radio operator. Now, Wormold has to back up his creations with actual evidence which, of course, doesn’t exist, all while Capt. Segura escalates his presence by becoming more than just an annoyance. He’s smitten with Milly, which ought to be creepy but instead just adds pressure on Wormold. While he’s trying to invent ways by which his imaginary agents can’t be reached, the Red Vulture starts picking up his daughter from the gates of her Catholic school and singing to her as he gives her a police escort home. You can imagine the opportunities here for polite screwball comedy, especially with Alec Guinness facing off against the ever-suspicious Ernie Kovacs. Greene uses his real world experience of spycraft to keep escalating the tension too, so that Guinness is challenged more and more just as Wormold is.
Hilariously, Wormold’s mistake wasn’t really to make everything up, because that house of cards would only have been damaging to him and his daughter when it all comes tumbling inevitably down. As Hasselbacher points out, it’s because he invented too well. In espionage, it really doesn’t matter whether anything is true or not, it only matters whether it’s believed and a lot of people have bought into this particular set of nonsense. The British government believes it. Capt. Segura believes it. Even people who were part of creating the fiction to begin with start to believe it too. “Why didn’t you stick to invention?” Hasselbacher asks Wormold, who’s unable to convince his friend that he did. Of course, the ramifications spread beyond the people actually involved to encompass a collection of others who aren’t involved at all in any way other than being fictionalised in Wormold’s fake reports. There really is a pilot by the name of Montez, for instance; Wormold tried to recruit him, failed dismally and promptly forgot about him.

This is unmistakably Alec Guinness’s show. Jim Wormold is a gift of a part for any actor, but especially one of Guinness’s calibre. It really is a joy watching him revel in his own perceived cleverness when his fabrications bear fruit and then squirm when the walls close on him. It’s hard to pick a favourite scene because there are so many setpieces. Early on, he waltzes into the country club like the cat that ate the cream, even though a waiter almost kicks him out because he’s not known. There’s a fascinating scene at Milly’s birthday party, when Capt. Segura joins their table uninvited and flirts with inappropriateness while Wormold flirts with a lady at the bar, who turns out to be the secretary Hawthorne has sent him. It’s one scene for everyone else but it’s two for Guinness, who has to bounce between them. There’s another where he has to give a speech at a businessman’s luncheon, knowing that someone is there with the sole intention of murdering him through poison. But who? How many? Surely it’s not his own fake agent?
My pick, though, has to be the point where things have got desperate enough for Wormold to cough up his collection of miniature whisky bottles as pieces for a drunken game of checkers with Segura. Of course, he has to lose, because the whole point is to get the man so drunk that he’ll pass out so that our hero can steal his gun. This is Kovacs’s finest moment too because it tasks him with two roles in one: the wannabe future son-in-law playing up to the family he wants to marry into and the ruthless secret police captain willing to do anything to maintain and consolidate his position in Havana. Guinness was always a subtle comedian, with his work at Ealing in The Ladykillers, The Lavender Hill Mob and The Man in the White Suit, among others, absolutely quintessential subtle comedy. What’s odd isn’t that Guinness is subtle here, but that Kovacs is too because that wasn’t his style. He toned down his improvisation to duel with Guinness in subtlety just as their characters duelled wits as much as checkers in this glorious scene.

While most American television viewers today wouldn’t know him from Adam, Kovacs was a real pioneer, though it could well be that, even had he lived, he wouldn’t have been able to maintain the wild invention that he was known for. Lindsy E. Pack, writing for the Museum of Broadcast Communications wrote, “The Ernie Kovacs shows were products of the time when television was in its infancy and experimentation was acceptable. It is doubtful that Ernie Kovacs would find a place on television today. He was too zany, too unrestrained, too undisciplined.” It was precisely those attributes that made him such a pioneer. His 1950 show Three to Get Ready was the first regular breakfast show on a major network. He created visual effects by manipulating the cameras to seem to be underwater or on the ceiling or looking through his co-star’s head. He also moved off stage, even out of the studio, always on camera. Pulitzer Prize-winning critic William Henry III called him “television's first significant video artist.”
I’m very happy to have rewatched Our Man in Havana because of Ernie Kovacs because it highlights just how much there is to see in this film. My first time through was mostly dominated by Graham Greene’s script, which is a nightmarish comedy constructed out of ever decreasing circles, but which ends with a gloriously upbeat poke at his former employer, MI6, and the espionage business in general. My appreciation of the considerable talents of Alec Guinness are enhanced as much by rewatching films of his that I know as those that I’ve never seen before. Ralph Richardson is note perfect and Burl Ives is only one of a number of cast members to put more depth into supporting characters than is immediately obvious. Maureen O’Hara is sadly relegated to the role of love interest, espionage being a man’s game in 1959, but she proves that she’s worth more than that, as an actress and a character. The music, by Frank and Laurence Deniz, stood out this time through, with local musicians frequently either on screen or very close to it.

And Kovacs does a fantastic job too, his character there at the very beginning before we ever see Alec Guinness, but growing all the way through, Capt. Segura’s connections to Wormold reminding of the characters played by Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains in Casablanca. That the script almost leads them to “the beginning of a beautiful friendship” validates Fidel Castro’s criticism that the novel did not adequately rail against the brutality of the Batista regime. Given that the film was made with his express permission, it would have been inappropriate for it to allow such an ending. Capt. Segura is not a nice man, but he’s not a stupid one and he’s a much better player of the game than either Wormold or his various superiors. We don’t like him, because we know that, if we were drinking buddies and we put a foot wrong, he’d kill us in a heartbeat, but he has charm. As Milly points out, “he tortures prisoners but he’s always been nice with me.” Ernie Kovacs died in 1962 at only 42, but he’s still with us on the screen. Happy birthday, sir!

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