Monday, April 21, 2008

Suck (or Vacuuming as Military Intelligence)

Buying a piece of intelligence in Carroll Reed's Our Man in Havana (1959). L to R: Alec Guinness as Wormold, Noel Coward as Hawthorne (Source: DVD Beaver)

I am a huge, unabashed fan of Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana (1958). But I would even say that I am bigger, more unabashed fan of Carroll Reed's subsequent film version from 1959. The story is the same: Wormold, a vacuum cleaner salesman in pre-Castro Cuba, is mistaken for a British intelligence operative. He opts for the MI-6 paycheck, the only caveat being that he has to provide other Field Agents with intelligence.

Poster for Reed's Our Man in Havana (1959)

As one of Greene's "entertainments", Our Man in Havana certainly is not lacking in its comic moments. Although it is not quite as funny as the stitch-inducing Travels With My Aunt, Reed's film version makes up for this through its brilliant casting. As the delicate, phlegmatic Wormold, Alec Guinness plays the part brilliantly, echoing the brilliant charm of his Ealing comedies as well as The Horse's Mouth. Noel Coward gives Field Station Chief Hawthorne a necessary and comic taciturn flair. Burl Ives' tragic and teutonic Hasselbacher becomes the film 's urgent, humanistic center.

But my favorite character in the whole movie is a household appliance. One of the story's high comedic points occurs when Wormold is asked to provide MI-6 with proof that the Cuban army (in an eerily prescient collaboration with the Soviets) is building a missile base.

Wormold's Sunday-Morning Comic from Reed's Our Man in Havana (1959) (Source: DVD Beaver)

Inspired by a pulp Sunday morning comic depicting an airplane crash in the mountains, Wormold concocts a tale of a downed pilot seeing what he thinks is a missile base (see above). He delivers a "picture" of the base: a vacuum cleaner.

Wormold draws his Cuban missile base, from Reed's Our Man in Havana (1959) (screen capture by author)

This vacuum cleaner is an exquisite architectural specimen. In what looks like a sectional perspective or cutaway drawing, we see the interior of the vacuum cleaner. It features a fairly standard architectural vocabulary: floor plates, monumental scale, HVAC systems. And even more impressively, it becomes a high-tech object.

Wormold's vacuum cleaner/missile base, from Reed's Our Man in Havana (1959) (screen capture by author)

We need only remind ourselves that the very same year that Reed directed Our Man in Havana, Banham published his influential Theory and Design in the First Machine Age. Wormold's vacuum cleaner does not make it onto the pages of Theory and Design. Yet we also recall an article Banham wrote in 1959 for The Architectural Review called "Neoliberty: the Italian Retreat from Modern Architecture." In that piece, Banham reminds us of the importance of Wormold's own pop icon:
[T]he domestic revolution that began with electric cookers, vacuum cleaners, the telephone, the gramophone, and all those other mechanised aids to gracious living that are still invading the home, and have permanently altered the nature of domestic life and the meaning of domestic architecture.
It is thus interesting how, in Wormold's drawn universe, the vacuum cleaner has transcended its role as architectural representation. For him, the vacuum cleaner is architecture.

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