The temptation to take the king was great and what lay beyond the move was a shattering victory. His own piece would be made a king and a massacre would follow. Yet he hesitated. The heat of the whisky and the close night melted his face like a wax doll’s; he had difficulty in focusing.

⁃Graham Greene’s novel, Our Man in Havana

Our Man in Havana by Carol Reed (UK, 1959, 111 min.). Alec Guiness plays James Wormold, a British expat enjoying a modest life as a vaccuum cleaner salesman in Cuba. When a fellow Brit attempts to recruit him into the British Secret Intelligence Service, Wormold agrees because he can’t turn down the generous paycheck – but he hasn’t the first clue how to uncover political secrets to send back to London, so he simply invents them. When his made-up intelligence reports begin to have real-life consequences for Wormold and his friends, he must try his hand at espionage (and a whisky-soaked game of checkers) to save them from harm.

Adapted from his “entertainment” novel of the same name, Our Man in Havana draws on Greene’s own experience with the British Secret Intelligence Service, MI6. Greene’s work as a secret agent brought him to war-torn and developing areas throughout Europe and Africa, where he was exposed to a world of political intrigue that would influence his work. During this time, he also developed a disparaging view of MI6 and espionage in general (in part because his own supervisor, Kim Philby, turned out to be a double agent working for the Russians) that comes through strongly in the film. Greene shows us an MI6 led by self-important men whose love of theatrics is to blame for their absolute incompetence. Despite the sardonic subject matter, the likeable central characters give warmth and humanity to the film.