Intelligence services for any nation have in common an innate need for secrecy regarding their actions and a defensive posture regarding their activities and justification for same. Any probe of their budgets or actions are generally met with a mixture of contempt and silence, answers to the questions often arriving decades later when the department chiefs are dead or in retirement. This obstinacy could be due to the great importance of state security or to conceal that the value of an intelligence service is way overrated and the aggregate amount of fucking around is about equal to that in the kitchen of a Chicken N’ Waffles. Though tales of CIA ineptitude are legendary (The Fish is Red is a classic of unintentional dark humor, detailing the hilarious attempts to subdue Cuba and kill Castro), it is still assumed that it serves a purpose and is essential to the operations of the U.S. government and protection of American interests overseas. I will accept that notion once proven, but as long as it is safely tucked behind grandiose illusions of ‘national security’, I will safely assume the entire budget ($27 billion in 1998) is blown on cocaine-filled Stratego parties and free crack for the slum dealers. An unfair view, but the comptroller can always issue a rebuttal in the form of an itemized budget.
A similar view is seen in the cold-war classic Our Man in Havana, originally penned by Graham Greene, set in a pre-revolutionary Cuba that was a Disneyland for drugs, brothels, and other business interests that were shy of taxes and scrutiny. Alec Guinness brings a precision ear for sardonic wit as a vacuum cleaner salesman named Wormold with an expensive daughter and a desire to avoid poverty. Business is not good, as he notes to a customer:
“The vacuum runs on electricity, but there hasn’t been much of that since the troubles began.”
“Troubles since when?”
“The death of Queen Victoria.”
He intuits the sun is setting on this particular land of opportunity, and would prefer to get his daughter out of there before she is set upon by greasy men, and get his pale ass back to Herefordshire. Alas, the cash is a bit thin, and there is no likely run on vacuums in the near future. Chance brings Mr. Hawthorne (Noel Coward) into his shop, a man serving king and country in the secret service, hoping to recruit a station chief for Cuba. That station chief will then recruit spies and informers who will in turn recruit their own in a pyramid scheme that sounds just stupid enough to be accurate. That a vacuum cleaner salesman was the first choice is part of the joke, since the only qualification appears to be a job that makes a convincing cover. From there, he need only recruit an army of informers, and submit a bill for expenses to his chief in Blighty. No proof is required, which again sounds idiotic and probably on the money. Since Wormold is more nebbish than cloak-and-dagger, he fails to recruit anyone in a series of scenes that show Guinness has an immaculate gift for comedy, particularly when attempting to proposition a man in the gent’s. His superior is no better, as his identity is so secret, that a police car follows him constantly while his tweed suit and umbrella is a smidge conspicuous.
Frustration builds until he realizes that the pond between London and Havana is famous for being very big, and as Joe Pesci noted, “I don’t know anyone who can see that far.” He proceeds to invent a large cadre of spies too numerous to even remember, and even sketches a series of futuristic super-weapons that somehow resemble vacuum cleaner parts. The office of MI-6 goes pear-shaped over these revelations and sends an accountant and demands proof of these weapons as an attack is given serious consideration. All of this sounds implausible and indigestible as a film, except for two things. One, Alec Guinness is such an affable yet confident actor that he can sell any role or situation – see Kind Hearts and Coronets as but one example. And two, without adequate oversight, one can get away with virtually anything. After all, Wormold is ‘our man in Havana’, so why should he be doubted?
Several films have toyed with the idea that intelligence services are riddled with termites of this kind, creating networks of individuals and bodies of information that only demonstrate the elusive nature of truth and the impracticality of awareness of one’s enemies’ activities, real or imagined. The Tailor of Panama is a virtual remake of Our Man in Havana, and an inferior one at that. Burn After Reading is a deceptively simple take on the same idea, where Havana makes its agenda plain. The Russia House, though not a comedy, masterfully deconstructs the world of “grey men” as ethically and ideologically bankrupt when a Russian physicist offers to give to the West the total Soviet capability for nuclear war, and is ignored because that capability turns out to be shit. Few films can rival the dark comedic elements of Havana, which flirts with potentially disastrous shifts in tone as the network of lies threatens to descend upon Wormold’s head. He sends communiqués regarding nonexistent agents with names based on real people, and so those real people start to suffer for Wormold’s imagination. Finally, he becomes a target for assassination, understandable given his importance in the Caribbean intelligence structure. Despite the quietly mounting body count, it remains a farce throughout, and the joke is on us for assuming the business of gray men is a selfless service to protect us. Perhaps the only thing protected are the jobs of agents and the corporate drones who shuffle them across a game board.
When it comes time to plead the truth, and clear up the entire mess as a mistake, the film proceeds to implode into an even more opaque cloud that sweeps the affair under a no doubt crowded rug. Asses are covered, events ignored, and the perpetrators are hidden by promotion in a way that rings loud and true. The perfection of the denouement is every bit the equal of Kind Hearts and Coronets, a film which shares not only a lead actor, but a savage sense of humor and a cynical view of our idea of justice.