Our Man in Havana
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Because it's not available on DVD, the 1959 espionage comedy Our Man in Havana is one of the least known of Carol Reed's films. Yet its high-octane cast -- including Alec Guinness, Ralph Richardson, Noel Coward, Ernie Kovacs and Maureen O'Hara -- and witty Graham Greene script make it a standout, well worth rediscovery and re-evaluation.
Greene based the story on his own experiences in espionage during World War II. While serving in Portugal near the war's end, he had met some German spies who were sending invented reports back to their dying fatherland in order to keep collecting their paychecks. His first idea was to write a screenplay about an Englishman who does the same thing in pre-war Estonia in order to keep his greedy wife happy. But when the outline was presented to the British film censors it was rejected as derogatory to the British Secret Service. Realizing that he'd have a hard time winning audience sympathy for a character who betrayed England on the eve of World War II, he re-set the story in '50s Havana, changed the wife into a daughter and published it as a novel.
With its exotic setting and comic take on espionage, Our Man in Havana was a natural for the movies. Among the filmmakers vying for the rights was Alfred Hitchcock. When he refused to meet Greene's asking price of 50,000 pounds, however, Greene sold them to his friend and frequent associate Carol Reed for much less, figuring that if he were going to take less than he wanted, he could at least sell the rights to someone he knew would remain faithful to the novel.
Reed and Greene had scored a pair of international hits with The Fallen Idol (1948) and The Third Man (1949). With Reed's career in a slump in the late '50s, this seemed the perfect project to revive his cinematic fortunes. They had little problem selling the project to Columbia Pictures and moved to a hotel in the British resort town Brighton to work on the screenplay.
Columbia asked them to put some U.S. marquee names in the film, so Reed cast American stars like Ernie Kovacs and recent-Oscar®-winner Burl Ives in juicy supporting roles. To star as the vacuum cleaner turned secret agent, he turned to Alec Guinness, a U.S. favorite from such classic '50s comedies as The Ladykillers (1955) and his Oscar®-winning performance in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). Another American favorite, Noel Coward, took the role of the agent who recruits Guinness. Coward had lost out on the role of Harry Lime in The Third Man a decade earlier, so the new film was something of a consolation prize. The studio wanted Lauren Bacall for the female lead, but when she proved unavailable, they turned to O'Hara, whom they already had under contract. Jean Seberg decided to make a little French film called Breathless (1960) rather than play Guinness' daughter, so Reed cast another Columbia contractee, Jo Morrow. To play Coward's boss, he cast Ralph Richardson, who had risen to international stardom in his The Fallen Idol.
Shooting was set for Cuba in early 1959. Then Fidel Castro's communist revolution overthrew the U.S.-supported government of Fulgencio Batista. Columbia's executives were concerned about sending a film company into the unstable country, but Greene assured them that his friendship with Castro would guarantee their safety. When they submitted the script to the new Cuba's Labor Department for work permits, however, they were asked to make changes until they reassured the bureaucrats that the depiction of a corrupt Cuban government would clearly be set during the Batista regime. They even included a written prologue to explain "This film is set in Cuba before the recent revolution."
When filming started, more censorship arrived in the person of the Ministry of Interior, which demanded to inspect the script. They demanded a few minor line changes, insisted that a shoe-shine boy change from rags to nice pants and required Kovacs to shave the beard he had grown for his role as a corrupt police chief (modeled on the head of Batista's police repression squad). By that time, Cubans associated beards with the rebel leaders, so it wouldn't do for a villainous representative of the overthrown government to wear one. When the company moved to the Tropicana to re-create the island's legendary strip club, there was even a censor among the extras, who would rise up and protest whenever one of the women showed too much skin.
Early in the filming, Castro invited Reed, Greene, Coward and Guinness to visit him. When they arrived at his bungalow, however, he was embroiled in a meeting. After waiting 90 minutes, they left. Weeks later, however, the new premier showed up for an impromptu set visit during which he assured Reed there would be no censorship problems. Contrary to rumor, much of it invented by Columbia's PR department, he did not ask O'Hara for a date or try to romance Morrow.
O'Hara had her own brush with the revolution when she met freedom fighter Ernesto "Che" Guevara at the hotel where the company was staying. She was impressed by his knowledge of Irish history and the nation's rebellions against the British, particularly when he explained that he had learned it all at the knee of his Irish grandmother. She would later state in her memoirs that the famed Che Guevara cap, worn by students and political dissidents around the world, was really an Irish rebels cap.
After seven weeks of location shooting, the company moved to London for studio work and one day of location work at Parliament Square. They also found it necessary to post-dub all of the Cuban street footage because of problems controlling crowd noises during the shoot. Each day that they shot exteriors, locals would surround the set. Though they provided inexpensive extras for the film, they also became vocally involved in the action, hissing whenever an actor dressed in the blue uniforms of Batista's police force appeared on set.
For most, Our Man in Havana was a congenial experience. Kovacs was delighted that Guinness and Coward "got" his sense of humor (Guinness would call him the funniest man he had ever met), while O'Hara was delighted by Guinness' professionalism and warmed by his praise of the British accent she assumed for her role as a Secret Service secretary. Guinness, however, had not enjoyed his experience working with Reed. Early on Reed had surprised him by stating that Guinness' character was really less important than the events happening around him, so there would be few close-ups of the star. When Guinness showed up on the set with ideas for playing the character as an untidy, fussy little man, Reed told him, "We don't want any of your character acting. Play it straight. Don't act." Not knowing what to do with a direction like that, Guinness delivered an undistinguished performance, allowing Coward and Kovacs to steal the film.
Producer-Director: Carol Reed
Screenplay: Graham Greene
Based on his novel
Cinematography: Oswald Morris
Art Direction: John Box
Music: Hermanos Deniz
Principal Cast: Alec Guinness (Jim Wormold), Burl Ives (Dr. Hasselbacher), Maureen O'Hara (Beatrice Severn), Ernie Kovacs (Capt. Segura), Noel Coward (Hawthorne), Ralph Richardson ("C"), Jo Morrow (Milly Wormold), Paul Rogers (Hubert Carter), Gregoire Aslan (Cifuentes), Maurice Denham (Navy Officer), Maxine Audley (Teresa), Ferdy Mayne (Prof. Sanchez), Karel Stepanek (Dr. Braun), Elisabeth Welch (Beautiful Woman), Rachel Roberts (Prostitute). BW-111m.
by Frank Miller