Tuesday 22 September 2020

Streaming - John Baxter finds pleasure in another visit to HAVANA (Sydney Pollack, USA, 1990)

Robert Redford, Lena Olin, Havana


        “Just about a year ago, I was on my way to Havana. The birds were singing and the sky was blue, and I said to the big lug in the next pew ‘I need a coupla hundred dollars, big boy ‘ and he said ‘In my pants pocket.’...”

       It’s customary to see GoldDiggers of 1933 in terms of the Busby Berkeley numbers but I like the dialogue too. Those lines in particular, spoken by Aline McMahon, might just as easily have been said about a trip to London or Berlin or even Paris, but with the mention of Havana comes a unique sensual signature; the fragrance of frangipani, the clack of the claves, and the bite of a Daiquiri’s lime. 

       Hollywood made surprisingly little use of this inviting island just a short boat trip from Key West. During the forties, the Good Neighbor Policy, designed to keep Central and South America from the Nazis, concentrated on Brazil, which had coffee, and Carmen Miranda too. If you needed a Cuban background for Alice Faye or Don Ameche to fall in love, you faked it. Sugar cane’s sugar cane and sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Shoot it in Malibu.    

       Once Castro took Cuba off the movie menu, other locations had to serve. Richard Lester used Spain for his murky Cuba andFrancis Ford Coppola the Dominican Republic for The Godfather II, neither of them entirely convincing – though a good deal more so than Carol Reed’s Our Man in Havana, which,despite actually having been shot there, made Batista’s corrupt capital look like winter in Giggleswick.

        Most films about Cuba dwell on its decadence under Batista or repression under Castro. It’s considered dubious to depict what Havana once signified – Bacardi cocktails and gaudy night clubs and big cigars and bigger cars and lavish night-club floor shows and beautiful whores and pornographic exhibitions at the Teatro Shanghai featuring the legendary Superman. In other words, fun.

       I only know one film that takes the time to explore that aspect of the Cuban experience – Sydney Pollack’s 1990 Havana. It’s always been a favourite, despite having taken a pasting from the reviewers… and the punters; it returned less than a quarter of its cost.Pollack shows Cuba in 1958, in the last weeks before Castro, through the eyes of Robert Redford’s career poker player. Like Coppola, he shot in the Dominican Republic, but with 2000 Cuban exiles who, it’s said, wept over how accurately their lost capital was recreated.

       Jack Weil has survived the war, only to face a landscape of existential ennui. “A funny thing happened to me last week,” he tells his friend Joe Volpi (Alan Arkin), one of Meyer Lansky’s minions. “I realised I wasn’t going to die young.”  Whatever Judith Rascoe says in her screenplay (updated and re-written by David Rayfiel), I don’t see that falling in love with the wife of a Castro sympathiser is going to solve his problems (not even if Redford and Olin were lovers at the time). But for half the film he acts as if it might, cruising a city where the heat and sweat are almost palpable, playing poker in strip clubs and enjoying three-way sex with two eager Americans (Betsy Brantley and Lise Cutter) who know how to have a good time as much as he does, all to a melange of music - Sinatra, Afro-Cuban, Fats Domino, pop of the day - more felt than heard.  (Dave Grusin received an Oscar nomination for his score.) 

         Written by Rascoe in the 1970s for Jack Nicholson and Jane Fonda, Havana issaid to have been pitched as “a Casablanca for the Cocaine Age.”  If there was cocaine in the original script, Rayfiel wisely wrote it out. Though it has a shady American hero, a married heroine in a foreign location, a half-sympathetic lawman, and an exotic setting, Lena Olin, despite being Scandinavian, is no Ingrid Bergman, and Redford too much the sensualist for Rick. (Catch Weil doing chess problems! He plays Patience.) 

       The most potent mood-enhancer in Havana is the daiquiri, of which gallons are consumed. The real turn-on, however, is poker, and in showing the dynamic of big-time gambling Pollack is in his element. 

The Big Game

       One montage in particular goes to the heart of its appeal. Bored with waiting for permission from Meyer Lansky to stage The Big Game, Jack cruises the sex show district until a strip club owner lets him set up at the back of the room. As bored strippers stroll back and forth along the bar, Jack does what he does best, and players are drawn as night insects to a pheromone. The arrival of big-money player Baby Hernandez (Fred Asparagus), dapper and fat in white linen and a Panama, signals that the serious game is up and running, and soon there’s a crowd. and, with it, money, sex, music (everything that Castro would eradicate – director’s message?) 

       In 1920, lots of Americans, parched by Prohibition, were singing this tune: music and lyrics by Irving Berlin. 

       “Not so far from here

       There's a very lively atmosphere

       Ev'rybody's going there this year 

       And there's a reason; the season 

       Opened last July, 

       Ever since the U. S. A. went dry  

       Ev'rybody's going there and I

       ..’m going too.

        I'm on my way to....Cuba.”   

       Watching Havana, I wish I were too.

A copy of Havana  is streaming if you click here

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