Adapting a novel for a feature film is a challenging process, and one that rarely succeeds. The two mediums have different artistic constraints and trying to fit several hundred pages into a two-hour film often comes at the expense of leaving some of the novels’ character development out, or even worse, the very characters themselves.
In 1959, the marriage of these two art forms was successfully realized when British novelist Graham Greene adapted his novel for the film version of the espionage comedy, Our Man In Havana.
The black and white film takes place in pre-revolutionary Cuba during the dictator Batista’s reign, and stars Alec Guinness, Burl Ives and Maureen O’Hara.
The story revolves around Alec Guinness, an excruciatingly mild-mannered man who plies his trade as a vacuum cleaner salesman, and lives in Havana with his far too alluring daughter.
His best friend is a mysterious rotund German, a Dr. Hasselbacher (Burl Ives), who is always trying to lend his British friend, James Wormold (Guinness), some money so that he can buy those pretty things that pretty daughters so often love.
Wormold unwittingly becomes embroiled with the British Secret Service when he is asked to become a satellite agent for his Government. Love of Queen and Country, being a gentleman, and all that other noble nonsense does little to sway Guinness into accepting the offer.
It is only when his controller, a delightfully suave Noel Coward, offers him an attractive monthly stipend that Wormold sees the light and signs on.
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Her Majesty’s supplemental income is proportional to the value and scope of the information passed on by the vacuum spy to British headquarters.
An increasingly sly Guinness proceeds to make up an entire network of contacts (spies), recruited by him and who are active in the streets of Cuba obtaining vital intelligence.
Wormold’s value dramatically increases when he sends to London sketches of a new sinister weapon being constructed in the hidden hills of Cuba.
The plans are eventually passed on to “C”, an important man in the company, who is eager to share the drawings, that look remarkably like the parts of a vacuum cleaner, with the Prime Minister himself.
The film has this incredibly dry and restrained sense of humor that builds to a delightful and oddly believable climax.
The production itself was partially shot in the streets of Havana shortly after Castro’s rise to power. El Comandante (Castro) personally assured the author Greene, that there would be no problems filming in the capitol and even took the time to visit the set to assure the director (Carol Reed) that there would be no issues with the Cuban censors.
Our Man In Havana after not being available for many years has recently been released on DVD and is one of those undiscovered treasures that should appeal to anyone who appreciates good story telling, excellent performances and an exotic cigar-friendly location.