Monday, September 26, 2011

The Spy Who Came in From the Heat

Adapted by Graham Greene from his own source novel, Our Man in Havana is a Cold War comedy with a 'fall of Empire' subtext. Directed by Carol Reed, who famously collaborated with Orson Welles on The Third Man (1949) and later won Best Picture and Best Director awards for Oliver! (1968), it could have only come out of Great Britain.

Cuba. 1959. Months before the revolution.

Alec Guinness is an effeminate vacuum cleaner salesman who dotes on his attractive young daughter and wants nothing more than to earn enough money to send her to an expensive finishing school in Switzerland. So, when an English gentleman, carrying an umbrella, propositions him in a bar room lavatory, he agrees to co-operate with whatever clandestine activities the mysterious stranger has planned.

I know what you must be thinking, and it isn't that. Well, not quite. The English gentleman is a British Secret Service agent who wants Alec Guinness to be his Man in Havana, providing social and economic intelligence for Queen and country. That other thing is certainly simmering just below the surface though, which, for a film made and released in 1959 is risqué to say the least.

The film is a comedy of the absurd, ridiculing British superiority and British manners. How many American films can you name in which officials are unable to distinguish between the East and West Indies and are complicit in intelligence fraud so as to avoid egg on face?

No. American spies are invariably roguish, ultra-bright MIT, Harvard and Stanford graduates fighting against the inequities of foreign despotic regimes, and, occasionally, their American equivalent; close kin of David Duchovny's Fox Mulder in the X-Files. That is unless they are appearing in an Oliver Stone film. But even his films were post-Vietnam, post-Watergate. For a film made in the 1950s to poke fun at its national institutions in such an uncompromising manner was truly radical, and, I would argue, uniquely British.

The post is part of the 'British Picture' series, an explication that genuine British cinema is one with a radical and pioneering spirit. A far cry from the bonnets and floppy haircuts with which British cinema is all too readily associated.


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