Cuba, before the revolution, and Englishman Jim Wormwold (Alec Guinness) owns a shop selling vacuum cleaners in Havana, but is not making as much money as he would have preferred when his teenage daughter Milly (Jo Morrow) has a liking for spending his funds on whatever whim she is taken with that week. As his best friend Dr Hasselbacher (Burl Ives) commiserates with him at their local bar, Wormwold wonders about the meeting he had earlier with an important looking man calling himself Hawthorne (Noel Coward) who was British like him, but hadn't bought anything - it was almost as if this posh Brit was sizing him up for something. But what?
Our Man in Havana was one of author Graham Greene's novels that he preferred to call "entertainments", suggesting a frivolous quality to them although when you know Brighton Rock was so termed then you might have other ideas and consider the great writer was being modest. Greene and director Carol Reed had worked together on an acknowledged British classic, The Third Man, and though Alfred Hitchcock had expressed an interest in adapting this Cold War yarn, Greene preferred to work with Reed once more, possibly anticipating lightning striking twice. It didn't work out that way, and although this had its adherents, you could see why it didn't take off in the popular imagination.
It was certainly a good-looking film, with crisp, widescreen photography by Oswald Morris which appeared torn from the pages of Picture Post, subtly capturing the action at an off-kilter angle when things were going wrong for the cowed protagonist who finds himself up to his neck in pointless espionage. This he does when Hawthorne recruits him for the British Secret Service, this in spite of Wormwold having no experience in spying, and the impression is one of bureaucratic quota-filling rather than the men from the Ministry seeking the right fellow for the job. They assuredly do not get him with this guy, as after a few half-hearted tries at collecting contacts at the country club, Wormwold finds it easier to simply make stuff up and pass it along.
While they are paying him for this bogus information, he can allow his daughter her profligacy with no harm done. Yet of course there is harm, and once someone is killed as a result of Wormwold's unintented machinations he wakes up to the idea that the spying world may be full of chancers and bluffers and buffers, but that doesn't mean it's not serious either, particularly when lives are at stake. By the point where he has to commit a murder himself, what began foolish complacency has turned into the corruption of his very soul, a theme which obviously appealed to Catholic converts Greene and Guinness. Yet the odd thing about this was the way it was supposed to be a comedy, with situations established as farce and character bits apparently designed to raise a chuckle at the bumbling on display.
However, you'd be hard pressed to be rolling on the floor at much of the humour here, which ranged from typical longsuffering father with a spoiled teenage daughter business to jokes about haemorrhoids and homosexual encounters in public conveniences, rather more off colour than you might have expected from a nineteen-fifties movie, and more fitting for the Carry On series which were continuing apace. The era's other big hit from the United Kingdom was the James Bond franchise, and though the film versions were three years away you could here understand what spy movies were like before Ian Fleming's tales of derring do really took off; in print, they were selling like hot cakes, yet on film the Brits hadn't gotten to grips with translating such material, hence Our Man in Havana is peopled by stuffy, grey men protecting their nation's interests, with Maureen O'Hara as a token longsuffering woman (drafted as Wormwold's secretary). Comedian Ernie Kovacs dialled down the humour as the sinister lawman, but overall this never found its metier, no matter Guinness' evident skill.