Remember when Britain made great movies? This film is a wholly satisfying experience, with
credit extending to all departments; great director, great script by Graham Greene, great
cast and performances, and authentic locations and atmosphere. Made by the great British
director Carol Reed, this is not Odd Man Out or The Third Man but combines the
best ingredients of British satire and noir with an international flavour.
Jim Wormold (Alec Guinness, Star Wars) is a vacuum salesman in pre-revolutionary Havana,
Cuba. He is headhunted by Hawthorne (Noel Coward,
The Italian Job),
head of the Caribbean section of MI6, to use his local knowledge to recruit and run a spy network.
Wormold is sceptical suggesting he has no access to any secrets. What Wormold does have is Milly
(Jo Morrow), his spoilt, silly, yet charming daughter, with expensive tastes; Milly wants a horse
and to join the local country club. Encouraged by his drinking buddy Hasselbacher (Burl Ives),
Wormold invents a spy network from the names of people he knows around him, and creates drawings
of a fantastic structure being constructed in the mountains, based on the components of the
vacuums in his shop. Hawthorne's boss in London 'C' (Ralph Richardson) authorises Wormold's
expansive expense account, and even sends out an assistant Beatrice (Maureen O'Hara), to whom
Wormold inevitably becomes attracted. Meanwhile Milly has aroused the matrimonial attentions
of Captain Segura, the hated head of security in Havana, known as the 'Red Vulture', convincingly
played by the American comedian and writer Ernie Kovacs.
The progression from a rather jolly bit of almost Ealing-esque satire, to something more
sinister is handled commendably well. The 'great game' notion of espionage, as managed by
Hawthorne and his superiors like a cricket tour, is contrasted with the dirty reality of
betrayal and violence that Wormold comes to encounter. Wormold realises that he does not
know his friends, and that his casual actions have had real consequences. Alec Guinness
plays Wormold as flawed, weak and yet amiable; likeable for his humour and his obvious
devotion to his daughter. Allowing himself to be pushed around by circumstance, he is
eventually shaken out of his languor by the realisation that there is no comfort or refuge
in guilt. Greene's territorial markers of guilt, alcohol, and original sin are as prevalent
as ever, and for once there is no tragic outcome, for some at least, when the lead character
discovers his own qualities of heroism.