Alec Guinness was that he was a chameleon. There wasn't a role he couldn't get into and really flesh it out. Countless actors were asked to play the part that he may be most known for in The Bridge on the River Kwai, Charles Laughton even admitting "I didn't know how to play that part until I saw Guinness perform." That's him. Comedy, drama, sci-fi, action, he could do it all. His comedy is often a perfect blend of physical and subtle, like 1959's Our Man in Havana.
Based on a novel by the typically dark but never dull Graham Greene, 'Havana' gives Guinness a chance to show off his impressive acting chops. You look at him and think he just doesn't look like a comedic actor. He's too stiff upper-lip British, too gentlemanly, and then you see him do his thing. It is a story based in the months leading up to the Fidel Castro takeover in 1959, and more interesting than that, the movie was filmed in Havana after Castro took over...with some serious restrictions of course.
Running a small vacuum cleaner store in Havana, 40-something salesman Jim Wormold (Guinness) is one day approached in his shop by another British national, Hawthorne (Noel Coward). An agent for British intelligence, Hawthorne wants Wormold to set up his own ring in Cuba, keep tabs on all the goings on. The salesman laughs off the offer and moves on. That is until his daughter (Jo Morrow) is growing up and needs all sorts of things. Wormold agrees to become an agent, but when he attempts to recruit his own sources he draws blanks left and right. So instead, he starts to report he has countless agents who have stumbled upon a major Cuban military venture, possibly a missile? Apparently not thinking things through, trouble is about to hit the fan when British intelligence investigates, wanting to know more about all these things Wormold has fabricated. In trouble much?
This is the darkest of comedies mostly because of that trouble that arises. For the early parts of the story, Wormold's deception is played for laughs, including a great montage as he "reports" how he came to recruit his throng of agents compared with what actually happened upon meeting them. Then his codes are broken by other rival intelligence agents -- who we never find out -- so when a support team (including secretary/assistant Maureen O'Hara) comes to help coordinate everything, the jig is up. It's only a matter of time before everything and everyone gets figured out. As for that dark humor, some of Wormold's "agents" start showing up dead. Oops, didn't mean for that to happen.
Guinness might not be considered a great comedic actor, but you can chalk that up to how dry he was on screen. He's never over-performing. He's subtle and sells lines with a quick look or a blink and you'll miss it reflex. The best part of this performance is when Wormold is forced to improvise, convincing O'Hara's Beatrice that he's on the up and up. She believes him, but his actions are played so off the cuff like he's calm and suave, not bothered that his "agents" are ignoring him and in some cases upset he's anywhere near them. I love Guinness in his dramatic parts, but he's no slouch when it comes to comedy.
Basically playing straight men/women to Guinness's predicament is a great supporting cast. O'Hara plays a different part than usual, a career woman in an intelligence agency that has her moving around constantly. She has a good patter with Guinness who wants to tell her the truth but never seems to be able to get around to it. Burl Ives plays Dr. Hasselbacher, a German doctor and friend of Wormold's who thinks he's gotten too far into something he can't possibly control. Ernie Kovacs takes a stab at the slimy villain, Captain Segura, a Bautista enforcer curious as to what's going on while also showing interest in Milly, Wormold's daughter. Coward is perfectly British as agent Hawthorne, and Ralph Richardson as 'C,' the supervisor trying to piece it all together, get laughs just by playing it all straight.
Stories and impressive casting aside, the coolest part of this movie is a look into 1959 Havana, Cuba just months after Castro and his army overthrew the Bautista regime. Director Carol Reed received permission to shoot in Havana, choosing to film in black and white. Reed's camera is right there in the street with his actors, giving the proceedings a real sense of what's going on. The indoor scenes were filmed in studios in England, but they can't all be winners. An interesting, often very funny movie with Guinness at his comedic best.
Our Man in Havana <---trailer (1959): ***/****