Graham Greene + Carol Reed is the formula for something awesome, as was proven with their previous collaborations, The Fallen Idol and The Third Man. In 1956 Reed transitioned to the 2:35 aspect ratio, having previously shot in the widely available 1:37 for his career to that point. I’d imagine that changing something as significant as the field of view and thus the way you frame your shots might be pretty difficult, particularly considering he’d made more than 20 films in the latter width to height.
I haven’t seen the two films that Reed began shooting 2:35 with – Trapeze and The Key – but Our Man in Havana is the third such attempt. The film, which follows Wormold (Alec Guinness), an Englishman in Havana who is unexpectedly recruited as a spy, is photographed gorgeously, and Reed makes excellent use of the wider image. The visuals in that sense are very much reminiscent of Otto Preminger’s, in my opinion, the absolute master at utilizing the widescreen. Reed’s film is in deep focus, and much less claustrophobic than the aforementioned Greene collaborations, which took place in shadier, singular locales. Here, Reed opens up his world, showcasing the bustling Havana streets, the dingy nightclubs, the lengthy back-alleys, and the characters that inhabit its daily machinations. His framing not only makes things freer, but also allows him to block more loosely…maybe loosely is the wrong word, because there’s nothing that feels improvised in this film. What I mean is that the characters move more and use the space more. There’s also room for background characters to come into play, especially a taciturn couple whose “romance” we see beginning with the opening frame and occasionally burgeoning as they make the infrequent edge-of-frame appearance here and there. If Preminger’s widescreen framing and blocking is elegant, fluid and tense, then Reed’s here is airy, structured and intense.
If there’s a complaint I have with this adaptation (which Greene himself performed), it’s that the screenplay eliminates much of the comedy of the novel. Guinness is always an excellent performer, and this is no exception, but his Wormold is much more in control of his own actions than the naive Wormold depicted in the original. The satire stays intact – drawing in the film largely from Noel Coward’s Agent Hawthorne – but it’s a more sophisticated brand of comedy than the ironic, occasional slapstick style from the book.
Some of the better scenes, including Wormold’s speaking engagement where he knows he is to be poisoned, are too truncated, sapping the moment of its true suspense. Nonetheless, fine performances by Guinness, Coward, Burl Ives, Ernie Kovacs and Maureen O’Hara move the film speedily along, as does Reed’s penchant for slightly off-angles and quietly observational tension. A sequence where Wormold faces off against the notoriously violent Captain Segura (Kovacs) in a match of whiskey and bourbon-drinking checkers is well played in its absurdity, suspense, and twisted parental values.