One of the most enduring movie arche-types of the 1940s and 1950s was the lone American male in a foreign land. Despite his armored exterior, he remained susceptible to a beautiful damsel in distress, especially one with a cause. The films were melodramas, but they offered a message that mirrored a long-standing issue in American political debate: isolation versus commitment. Humphrey Bogart put his indelible mark on this kind of tough guy in Casablanca (1943), and reprised the type a couple of years later in To Have and Have Not (1945). As Rick Blaine or Harry Morgan, respectively, he might sneer at politics for the first nine reels, but in the 10th, he’d do his part to make the world safe for democracy. Imitations proliferated through the early ’60s, but the image of Ronald Reagan or Rod Taylor scurrying around the Third World didn’t have quite the same effect as Bogart drawing on a cigarette, twitching his lips, and letting you know with his cold basset-hound eyes that there was indeed a moral center to the universe.
Hollywood’s inability to find suitable political struggles (after 1950, most rebels were funded by Communists — what kind of heroes would they make?) helped to kill the genre, while ensuring the enshrinement of Casablanca as an eternal romance, a dream to be shared by misty-eyed movie lovers, but utterly beyond the ken of modern filmmakers. In Play It Again, Sam, Woody Allen reduced the Bogart character to an adviser for insecure men who couldn’t get dates on Saturday night. Now, Havana (1990) has arrived — a knuckleheaded attempt to restore this genre to its pre-parody glory. When Michael Curtiz accepted the assignment to direct Casablanca, he was well aware of the script’s ludicrous plot contrivances; he boasted he could keep the film moving so fast that no one would notice them. Sydney Pollack, the considerably more pretentious director of Havana, chose the opposite approach: His tempo is so languorous, the film seems torpid when it isn’t dead.
The idea had some promise. Robert Redford plays Jack Weill, an American gambler who comes to Cuba in December 1958 to set up a high-stakes poker game in a casino run by mobster Meyer Lansky. Fidel Castro is in the hills, making increasingly successful attacks on Havana, while the corrupt, American- sponsored dictator, Fulgencio Batista, is cracking down on rebel sympathisers. On the boat to Cuba, Jack meets Roberta Duran (Lena Olin), who is married to the revolutionary leader Arturo Duran (Raul Julia in an unbilled role, see the article on page 74). There is endless blather about politics and causes. After 100 minutes, with 45 still remaining, Jack seduces Roberta and joins the fight. Since the only moments in the film that have any tension at all are the poker games, you wish he’d mind his own business and deal the cards.
Redford looks tired and indifferent from the moment he appears. There is no chemistry at all between him and Olin: Their long-awaited romance is laughably chaste. During one of their most intimate conversations, a stand-in was used for the back of Jack’s head while Roberta speaks her lines (rewind and replay the scene, if you don’t believe it), and the trick ruins the moment. The dialogue by Judith Rascoe and David Rayfiel is contentious nonsense; some lines sound as though they were improvised by acting students — for example, ”You don’t understand any of this because you spend your life playing cards.”
The direction is comatose, as though Pollack wanted to get his money’s worth of the elaborate set design (Havana was filmed in the Dominican Republic). There’s no energy, no sense of purpose. When Jack risks his life to rescue Roberta, it becomes drearily obvious that the film’s emotions are strangled by a timid refusal to celebrate the heroes of the revolution. The film doesn’t want to be caught praising Castro, so it discharges evenhanded potshots at Batista and the rebels. In this context, Jack’s decision to sacrifice his love for Roberta to the cause has no resonance.
Don’t let its mere newness fool you; Havana isn’t nearly as worthy a rental as either of its inspirations, Casablanca or To Have and Have Not. Of course, the similarities between those two Bogart vehicles are unmistakable. The action in both is centered on a bar fraught with international intrigue; there’s a loyal piano player (Dooley Wilson in Casablanca, Hoagy Carmichael in To Have and Have Not), a woman in need of help (Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall), and extensive male bonding (Claude Rains, Walter Brennan). Although it’s not a major work, Hawks’ To Have and Have Not is enormously entertaining in its first half, before the anti-Nazi propaganda kicks in. And we’ll never tire of Casablanca because of its emotional charge, which has not dated. The pacing is so sure, the script so taut, the supporting performances so witty, that you know from the start you are in masterful hands. The pleasures of Casablanca don’t lie in ideas or realism, which it manages to skirt entirely. Casablanca exists almost exclusively in the emotions; in that regard, it is a peerless example of pure cinema. D-