Spy 100, #5: Our Man In Havana

Now this is the stuff. From writer Graham Greene and director Carol Reed — the same winning team of The Third Man — comes Our Man in Havana (1959), an irresistible blend of classic filmmaking, spy intrigue, and dark comedy. The titular character is Jim Wormold (the great Alec Guinness), just a run of the mill British expatriate vacuum cleaner salesman living in Cuba before the communist revolution. Much to his amusement, Wormold is approached by a British spook named Hawthorne (Noel Coward), who recruits Wormold into his new Caribbean network. Wormold is no spy, and can’t imagine how he can be of any use, but Hawthorne won’t take no for an answer…and Wormold, whose frivolous daughter Milly (Jo Morrow) has expensive tastes, changes his tune once he sees the color of the British government’s money. The only problem: he possesses no intelligence. So, playfully, he begins making it up: inventing agents, fabricating reports, even generating his own top secret blueprints. It’s all harmless fun until one of his lies lands too close to the truth, a turn that spins his lark of a career in dark directions.

Can a movie be number five on a best-of list and still be underrated? Our Man In Havana is wonderful, an amusing comedy of errors that takes a dark turn into scathing critique of intelligence-world meddling. Guinness is delightful in an energetic, playful role, morphing convincingly from a cynically light-hearted opportunist to a repentant, actual player in the spy world’s dark alleys, working to engineer a valid endgame to the mess he’s made. Greene’s script is tight, funny, and doesn’t pander, while Reed builds the world with gritty black-and-white artistry. This one’s got everything I love in a good spy movie, with the added bonus of an incisive, whip-smart sense of humor. Very highly recommended.

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