[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]
When Hitchcock had to set a spy movie in Switzerland, he decided that the most effective way to exploit the milieu would be to honor an armchair touristâ€™s idea of the place. Hence, he built his plot and key sequences around those geographical and cultural phenomena most readily identifiable as Swiss: mountains, lakes, the manufacture of chocolate, quaint shrines, a demonstration of yodeling. Richard Lester tries to get away with the same approach to Cuba in 1959. Rum, cigars, sugar cane, the Morro, nightclubs, salsa, the U.S. Navy on more or less residential shore leave, a Latin lover and Latin love for sale: if itâ€™s part of the pop iconography, grab it and play it for all its worthâ€”because thereâ€™s not going to be much else to play with. That might do for Switzerland; Batistaâ€™s Cuba on the eve of Castro is quite another matter. One doesnâ€™t have to be rabidly political to want a more substantive index of governmental corruption than a scungy police detective taking bribes from everyone in sight, or a self-promoted general (Martin Balsam) keeping fat on the income from Havanaâ€™s parking meters (said loot stashed in a strongbox chained to his dotty motherâ€™s TV). Likewise, the proverbial fat sweaty American entrepreneur (Jack Weston) swooping down on every target of acquisitional opportunity, and a couple of bland accountants from an unspecified U.S. agency come to balance the books of the Committee for Anti-Communist Activities, are pretty unimaginative representations of the American presence, and deployed just as unimaginatively. Not that the politically correct side comes off much more flatteringly or interestingly: Fidel is (necessarily, I suppose) only a newsreel image on a video monitor, the Fidelistas are low-comedy, if well-meaning, goons beating about the cane fields, and the most dramatically important rebel is a punk (Danny De La Paz) who just wants a hifalutin excuse to shoot somebodyâ€”his sisterâ€™s aristocratic despoiler (Chris Sarandon), a British mercenary come too late to do anyone any good (Sean Connery), or any poor schmuck who gets in the line of fire.
Lester has done serious and aesthetically stimulating work attacking big subjects through absurdist farce; but not this time. The only halfway-intriguing proposition in Charles Woodâ€™s scenario (Wood, in addition to scripting other Lesters like The Knack and Help!, wrote Tony Richardsonâ€™s revisionist historical spectacle The Charge of the Light Brigade) is the confrontation of Conneryâ€™s Old Guard Romantic with Brooke Adamsâ€™s Free Woman who doesnâ€™t feel heâ€™s obliged to redeem her after making love to her, and also doesnâ€™t feel bound by his feeling obliged. But these two are implicated in a flimsy triangle with Adamsâ€™s philandering, hard-drinking, narcissistic, but an-aristo-for-all-that mate (Sarandon); this is supposed to provide the emotional and ethical focus of the historicopolitical crisis surrounding them, but the half-baked intention doesnâ€™t begin to come off. Neither do the characters or performances, although Lester once elicited one of Conneryâ€™s finest portrayals (Robin Hood); and there seemed a poetic rightness in his getting to shoot Adamsâ€”that pikeâ€™s mouth, shocking-black hair, arrestingly asymmetrical physiognomy and architecturally puzzling figureâ€”and Sarandon, who poses so vividly in tropical duds and Latino moustache that one keeps waiting for him to amount to something exciting. Thatâ€™s Cuba, too. Few movies this year have begun more promisingly, as Lesterâ€”his sense of exotic detail, rhythm, color, frame dynamics as sure as everâ€”introduces the characters and their respective milieux in a montage so expert one almost dances in oneâ€™s seat as the shots go by. And indeed, watching the film a second time I discovered that he and editor John Victor Smith never falter throughout the entire movie. Shou1d we look forward to someone hailing Cuba as a masterpiece of abstraction pointing to the cinemaâ€™s liberation from the toils of narrative? Iâ€™ll read it and, as a Lester fan of long standing, want to believe it. But Iâ€™ll also remember how I sat there the first time, anticipatory grin fixed till my cheek muscles ached, waiting for the movie to really get started.
© 1979 Richard T. Jameson
Direction: Richard Lester. Screenplay: Charles Wood. Cinematography: David Watkin; second-unit: Robert Stevens. Production design: Gil Parrando; art direction: Denis Gordon-Orr. Costumes: Shirley Russell. Editing: John Victor Smith. Music: Patrick Williams. Production: Arlene Sellers, Alex Winitsky. Executive producer: Denis Oâ€™Dell.
The players: Sean Connery, Brooke Adams, Chris Sarandon, Hector Elizondo, Jack Weston, Denholm Elliott, Danny De La Paz, Lonette McKee, Walter Gotell, Martin Balsam, Alejandro Rey, Louisa Moritz, Dave King, David Rappaport, Stefan Kalipha.