Reviewed by: Hal Astell
Set in Cuba before 'the recent revolution', it would appear from first glimpses that this just couldn't fail. Produced and directed by Carol Reed, with a screenplay by Graham Greene that was adapted from his own novel, and starring no less a Great British trio than Alec Guinness, Noel Coward and Ralph Richardson. Also credited before the title are Burl Ives, Ernie Kovacs and Maureen O'Hara, hardly minor names themselves. It's as great as it ought to be, but I was seriously surprised at the content. I thought it was a spy film, and it is, but it's also a comedy which I really wasn't expecting.
Greene introduces us to the characters through humour. Guinness is Jim Wormold, a mild mannered vacuum cleaner salesman and Coward is Hawthorne, a spymaster who comes to visit him with strange questions and an offer to meet him in the gents. What he's really doing is hiring him to work for the British secret service as the title character, part of his Caribbean network, and Wormold accepts so as to be able to finance his daughter Milly's expensive equestrian dreams. Ives is a friend of Wormold's, some sort of German doctor doing research into cheese or some such, and Kovacs is the Red Vulture, a notorious Cuban official with an interest in everything and everybody, most obviously Milly.
Guinness always had a joyously quiet talent for humour and he's hilarious here coming out with great lines, knowing grins and subtly hilarious changes of expression. His daughter Milly has him beat on the lines, pointing out about the Red Vulture that 'he tortures prisoners but he's always been nice with me', but the rest belongs to Guinness. Anyway, when trying to recruit agents, he ends up back with his friend Dr Hasselbacher, played by Ives, who points out that the best way to deal with secrets is to invent things.
Guinness subsequently invents a whole slew of agents and runs up a hugely inventive web of intrigue that has nothing remotely to do with reality. This works amazingly well, quickly turning him into the best agent in the western hemisphere, but his works of fiction also garner attention from Hawthorne, who sends him a secretary and a radio operator, which garners undue attention, and the whole mess of fabrications starts to take on unfortunate reality. Suddenly all the real people that he pretended were fake agents are in very real danger indeed and Wormold himself is pressed by the Red Vulture, Captain Segura into being a double agent.
I haven't read a lot of Graham Greene so I don't know how this fits in with the rest of his work. It certainly isn't anything like I expected, but my expectations weren't shot down in a bad way, I was merely pleasantly surprised at my lack of the remotest clue of what the film was about.