So faithful to the glibness of Graham Greene that wondering why he and director Carol Reed, as Edward Said wrote in another context, "resolutely confined" the experiences of the Cuban lives to ethnic color is to indulge in a kind of moral prissiness, 1960's Our Man in Havana is closer to the spirit of the James Bond pictures that would in effect consume the sophisticated international thriller subgenre in a little over two years. Released yesterday for the first time on DVD in a sparkling print, Our Man in Havana might gain a new following for this very reason: it's an artifact with few heirs (The Russia House and John Boorman's underrated adaptation of The Tailor of Panama are the only ones I can think of).
The Fallen Idol and The Third Man contain more than their share of easily delineated glibness too, but the anxious subtexts beneath the camerawork and the performances of Joseph Cotten, Ralph Richardson, and others sent subtle tremors through the facile Greene scripts. Thanks to the presence of Alec Guinness as the smooth vacuum cleaner salesman turned British double agent/fabulist, Our Man in Havana invokes the spirit of The Ladykillers and The Lavender Hill Mob, keeping a determined distance from the forces about to be unleashed by the descent of Fidel Castro from the Sierra Maestra. For the audience -- then and now -- there's little hint of the revolution seething off-camera, "the validity of an experience fully entitled to equal representation" of which Said speaks just a worry that we project onto the characters. The only hint of imperialist unease is the relationship between Guinness and Havana chief of police Ernie Kovacs; the latter is fully aware of the exploitative nature of their relationship, but Reed-Greene are more interested in keeping him reined in as an olive-skinned Claude Rains type, his cynicism so feline and polished that all he lacks is a cigarette holder. It's no accident that Noel Coward, Anglo-Saxon smoothness regnant, plays Guinness' case officer. Nothing wrinkles his tie, nor disturbs the waxen blankness of his mien. Quite a trick: in just three years the sun set on the English empire. As for Guinness, try finding a readily available mojito in Havana after 1963.