Saturday, August 27, 2011

Our Man in Havana - Fondly to be Wished

Of all the serious writers about whom one might think to discuss in the context of cinema, few if any have had as much personal interest in film as a medium, and perhaps none have been as successful in a purely literary way, as Graham Greene; or have had the privilege of having so many of their plots and ideas eventually made into movies. Exposure may be a good thing, or it may not, but in Greene's case, the quality of the material has stood the test of time.

Writing for film is different than writing for the page. The visual demands are primary--there is no "interior" persona, except perhaps as voice-over narrative--and what develops on the screen has a pace and continuity which does not permit interruption. Old-fashioned serials--no longer employed in the movie-business--might once have been described as episodic, as with chapters, and television may have weekly episodes, but in terms of "first-run" movies, a movie is a single action narrative, which goes non-stop for its entire duration, and can't be easily broken up. It's experienced as a unified, integral sequence. Cinema is an "impatient" medium in this sense, one in which immediacy of effect, and incremental attention to progress and detail, is demanding and unrelenting. Few serious novelists are capable of addressing both mediums--straight or genre fiction, and screenwriting--successfully. But Greene was. He not only understood cinema, but wrote about it, as well as penning at least five screen-plays [Brighton Rock (1947), The Fallen Idol (1948), The Third Man (1949) (about which I've written earlier), The Comedians (1967), and Our Man in Havana (1959)].

For a good many years, Our Man in Havana was unavailable on the retail video market. That it is now suddenly (to my surprise) available via YouTube [where it can be seen here in eleven episodic segments here thanks to "47johnscott"] is certainly the occasion for celebration, and I see just now that it has become available in DVD, via the Netflix site. I had learned some years back that its re-release in video had been held up for copyright reasons, an odd turn that affects certain older films. Until this week, I hadn't seen it for many years, the last time (I recall) as a rerun on our local PBS television station (KQED). Watching it again just now, I'm swept up in a wave of nostalgia for an era--not so long ago in mental time--when Fidel Castro was a young, optimistic revolutionary, the Cuban Missile Crisis and The Bay of Pigs fiasco hadn't yet happened, and the defining frames of political difference hadn't yet hardened between our government and that of Cuba. In 1959, things seemed very much in flux in Cuba, and a celebrity film crew might seem as innocent and harmless as a shipment of vacuum cleaners.

What more improbable group of actors might one have assembled than this?--

Alec Guinness
Burl Ives
Maureen O'Hara
Ernie Kovacs
Noel Coward
Ralph Richardson

Not knowing the plot, you might think that Guinness, Coward and Richardson would suggest a prim witty British light comedy, or perhaps a bit of Shakespeare. But Burl Ives? Ernie Kovacs? Maureen O'Hara? Ten years later you might have guessed the sinking of the titanic, or The Towering Inferno. But you'd have been wrong, of course. This group of old pros provided the perfect mix of dignified straight men, absurd caricatures and mildly menacing lurkers which the story required.

The author Graham Greene with Guinness on set in Havana

The Cuban Revolution had only been concluded the previous January, when filming began in Havana in 1959. As leader of the revolution, Castro visited the movie set in his signature army fatigues, basking somewhat awkwardly (below) in the spotlight of notoriety, a forum which he would come to occupy over the next four decades.

Set in pre-Revolutionary days, Greene's narrative was published first as a novel, which he then adapted to the screen. Like many of his "entertainments" (a category of fiction which he assigned to those books which had no putative "serious" content), the book is basically a comedy, but with more probing undercurrents of implication. The outposts of British occupation (both literal and metaphorical--the "Greenelands" of the globe) were his special setting, where, contrasted against foreign backdrops and cultural exotics, his British or American protagonists could be seen in dramatic relief. A Catholic, and even, for a time, an official functionary for British intelligence (MI-5), Greene suffered from bi-polar disorder, and nervously moved around the world in search of material, and for personal interest. Though English to the core, he seems to have felt most comfortable as a traveler abroad, living on the edge of things. Exile and disillusionment seem like a familiar states of mind in Greene, and Our Man in Havana contains all these qualities. Too, absurdity and comic sarcasm find their way into his plots, and into this movie as well.

The late 1950's was also a significant period for the
Cold War, then at its height, which had seen the launching of the Sputnik satellite by the Soviet Union in 1957, bringing into question the technological superiority of the West, and drawing increased attention to sophisticated weaponry, surreptitious intelligence gathering, and our paranoia about the Communist menace around the world, particularly--as we would shortly experience it first-hand--in our own Western Hemisphere. Bombs, rockets, spying and spy-craft--they were big subjects, then, high in the order of our preoccupations (and fears). All this, again, may seem like very old history, but at the time, these were present realities, just unfolding, timely and relevant.

Greene's story plays upon all these themes, albeit with comic irony. In pre-revolutionary Havana (Cuba), a backwater of the Cold War, an Englishman (James Wormold, played by Alec Guinness) running a small vacuum cleaner shop (no explanation is given as to how he happens to be in Cuba) is approached by a "stiff upper lip" functionary of the British Secret Service (Hawthorne, played by Noel Coward) in the Caribbean (he's posted to Kingston, Jamaica (a British colony then, it achieved independence in 1962)), and asked to become a paid spy operative.

Wormold ("old worm" or "worm mould" or "war mold") leads an uneventful life, tending to his shop, taking afternoon cocktails with his friend--another exile--a German doctor (Dr. Hasselbacher, played by Burl Ives), and trying to support the extravagant tastes of his attractive blonde daughter Milly (played by Jo Morrow). Meanwhile, Captain Segura, feared as the "Red Vulture" of the Cuban police militia, has eyes for Milly. Wormold needs money to support Milly's purchase of a thoroughbred jumping horse, and membership in the local country club, etc., so is susceptible to Hawthorne's offer of easy money to run the spy operation. Clueless as to how to proceed, he asks his old friend Hasselbach, who suggests that he simply invent a network, and the intelligence it provides. In short order, Hawthorne is encouraged by his superiors to promote the operation by sending a "secretary" (Beatrice Severn, played by Maureen O'Hara, and her assistant) to assist him in setting things up.

To make things interesting, Wormold invents fake intelligence of a secret weapons site high in the mountains. (Understand that this was well before the discovery of Russian ICBM's in Cuba. How could Greene have guessed this future history? How prescient!) He tells Milly that he's writing a science fiction story, and the drawing he's making of the imaginary "weapon" is to illustrate it.

By the time Hawthorne reports the early progress of his recruitment of Wormold in London, both he and his superiors have begun to suspect that Wormold is nothing but a fraud, playing along by inventing stories to please his superiors--his drawings of the "atomic pile" device resembling nothing so much as a moderne vacuum cleaner!! And yet, as if reluctant to admit their own incompetence and credulity, they refuse to act on their own suspicions, forging ahead, and widening the area of Wormold's excavations.

The absurdity of all this is not lost on the audience. Well-versed in the hocus-pokus of spy "trade-craft" from the world of fiction and cinema, it knows all too well about the familiar machinations of intrigue. No sooner does Wormold invent a plot--based on a cartoon he sees in the newspaper--to have a Cuban pilot shot down attempting to secure more aerial photos of the "weaponry" he has created, than reality trumps fantasy, and a "real" pilot is shot down over the mountains in suspicious circumstances. This convenient deus ex machina lifts the plot further out of improbable comic roman into the realm of virtual science fiction.

Not only is Wormold playing his handlers, but his handlers (MI-5) seem perfectly content to "run" a bogus spy network as long as no one dares to blow the whistle; and, as Wormold's fantasies begin to seem like the conjuring of fate, there is the uncomfortable sensation of being manipulated, as if the whole plot were indeed like a movie imagined by British Intelligence.

But reality becomes increasingly uncooperative. No sooner does Wormold's imaginary plot come to frightening life, than a new sub-plot springs up, in which some ghostly faction appears, threatening Wormold's life. By this point, not only does MI-5 realize how precarious Wormold's machinations have become, but the Cuban authorities, in the person of Captain Segura (Ernie Kovacs), have begun to figure out some of the mischief he has been making. Were it not for Segura's attraction to Milly, he would almost certainly have detained Wormold, if not deported him outright back to England.

In a weird sub-plot, Hasselbach is suborned by the ghostly anonymous faction to spy on Wormold, and then is inexplicably murdered in the street. At a business lunch, Wormold learns that Macdougal, posing as another appliance salesman, is stalking him.

In the metaphorical set-piece of the story, Segura challenges Wormold to a game of checkers. One of Wormold's hobbies is collecting souvenir miniature bottles of liquor. The two decide to play their game using alternate little bottles of scotch and bourbon. As each "takes" an opponent's piece, he must drink the captured bottle. In this way, Wormold arranges to let Segura "win" enough to drink himself into a deep sleep. Borrowing Segura's white-handled service revolver, he lights out into the night and meets his espionage counterpart, MacDougal, for drinks. Both men, realizing they're bent on each other's demise, finding themselves in a shady arcade before a whorehouse door, shoot it out, Wormold killing him with uncommon cool efficiency.

Finally, Segura, realizing his chances of marrying Milly are nil, decides instead to deport Wormold. Fully expecting to be jailed, or even hung, for treasonous acts against the Crown, Wormold walks into his meeting with the head of MI-5, expecting the worst. In the ultimate irony, 'C' (played by Ralph Richardson) informs Wormold that he's been chosen for a meritorious service decoration and is to be given an office, and assigned to train personnel in how to run a field office operation. Beatrice Severn and Wormold (who seem to have fallen in love) walk off down a London street, Milly in toe, to closing credits.

Though the story is clearly a comedy, people die, and a great amount of energy is expended to no particular purpose, save pointless intrigue and much ado about nothing. The targets of Greene's satire are clearly the self-important and incompetent strategists of Western bureaucracies, particularly their bankrupt "efficiency" and investment in appearances instead of verifiable data. Caught up in their own intrepid maneuvering, they manage to bring about the death of three people, and cover their own tracks by quietly burying the whole affair. The deeper irony, of course, is the absurdity of those deaths, when measured against very real problems of the world. Insulated from the social and political realities of the world they see as their plaything, the British Secret Service engages in quixotic jousts, seducing innocents into play as ciphers in their grand game. The surreal checkers match between Wormold and Segura may stand for the whole metaphoric "rules of the game" which animates the players, and raises them out of the drudgery of the quotidian into the glamor of official artifice.

For Greene, once an amateur agent himself, during World War II, the trappings of pretentious intrigue must have seemed an absurd indulgence when measured against the temptations of Third World disorder. As a Catholic, the personal code of honor and virtue which his faith offered, guaranteed that his view of the rational options available would lead inevitably to the solitary individual, absolved of all formal duty or obligation, at the deepest levels of character. In Wormold, we can see the dilemma of a man for whom personal priorities are as persuasive as national pride. Separated from its context, adrift in an alien (Latin) culture, patriotic feeling may lose its meaning. In the ultimate test of faith and allegience, Wormold chooses family (his daughter's welfare), and love (his feeling for Beatrice), over truth and honor. This is the choice I outlined in an earlier blog essay "Friendship & Love". The Greene quotation I referenced there--"If you have to earn a living...and the price they make you pay is loyalty, be a double agent--and never let either of the two sides know your real name"--is a key to his tortured conscience, "referring to the allegiance which an individual makes, privately, to himself. It assumes that such oaths and vows are by their nature secret, never divulged, and that by maintaining a sort of "neutral" ground--a personal code of non-commitment--one may save one's moral soul by never truly (to one's self) taking sides. This kind of alienation from outward forms of connection is typical in the modern world, since it accepts as a given that we all have private lives which are distinct and separate from our existence in the everyday world. It's explicitly immoral, or morally ambiguous, since it sets the individual ethically apart from an expressed, committed choice. Each individual is therefore free to maintain a private code. A private code implies a degree of freedom, a core of sensibility which is impenetrable, even under torture, or extreme temptation."

Like The Third Man, Our Man in Havana is the portrayal of an individual set amidst the chaos of betrayals and corruptions of the actual world, trying to navigate a pathway fraught with temptations, mysteries, and dangers. In the wider irony of the realities of the time, Our Man in Havana ended up being a cautionary tale about the self-deception of America's anxieties regarding those threats--both real and imagined--throughout Central and South America, in the succeeding decades. Mere individuals can do little--if anything--to effect the outcome of larger events. Greene seems to be saying that notions of importance we assign to specific moral acts are mere illusions, if seen from their true perspectives. Personal safety and commitments must dictate our behavior, since that is all, in the end, we truly have.

Watching this film again is a nostalgic experience for me. I probably saw it soon after its initial release date, in 1959 or '60, when the events of that year--Castro's triumphant revolution--were fresh in the news. Ernie Kovacs died only three years later in an auto accident, a sad loss to American cinema and television. The story would be Greene's last "entertainment." Few writers of "crime" or "espionage" or "thriller" genres have had Greene's sense of humor or irony. We seem to see the world as more black and white. Let's hope they don't try to colorize this fine film; it's just fine like it is.

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