What a wonderful setting Havana in 1959 is for a movie. Cuba had everything then exotic locations, a country in the grip of revolution, nightclubs, plantations, and fine cigars. Yet in recent memory only three significant directors have utilized this locale. Francis Ford Coppola did so famously in about 40 minutes of The Godfather, Part II, which wonderfully evoked a past time and place. Sidney Pollack and his long-time acting muse Robert Redford compiled a rather slow moving Havana in 1990. And in between, Richard Lester got together a big name cast for low audience returns in the rather generically titled Cuba (1979). But don't let the title fool you Lester has put together an intricate tale that is novelistic in its layering of social strata interacting against a backdrop of war and social turmoil. Andrew Yule in his flawed book The Man Who "Framed" the Beatles describes the film as "the blot that Cuba is on Lester's artistic record." But John Sayles (City of Hope, Lone Star) must have seen this film, and Steven Soderbergh is on record, in Getting Away With It, his delightful interview book with Lester, as admiring the film ("The elements that people seem to attack in it are the very things that make it interesting to me"). Cuba is one of Lester's unrecognized masterpieces. Heck, it's one of his typically under-appreciated pleasures. But Lester's later career is plagued by this sort of luck; it's as if he has such a distinctive visual, editing, and acting style it actually gets in the way of the audience, which prefers that its mass entertainments be leavened with blandness. Sadly it appears that Lester will have to die or grow gravely ill before the critical community and the film industry finally decide to begin honoring this spectacular filmmaker.
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The magic of the Cuba (written by frequent Lester collaborator Charles Wood) can be isolated in one sequence, where Sean Connery and Brooke Adams, at the tail end of a long evening, walk through the fetid streets of dawn in their formal evening attire. The combination of music (a romantic Henry Mancini-style song in the background), jump cuts (to different characters in parallel situations), and the rich photography (by the influential David Watkin, who did Catch-22) that shows the well-off characters against the backdrop of outsized poverty to which, as Soderbergh and Lester discuss, they are oblivious, all unite to create a beautifully sensuous and evocative scene as the two characters, for the first and last time in the film, share with each other their inner lives. Connery is the freelance military advisor brought in by a Cuba general (Martin Balsam) to help squelch Castro's rebels. There he runs into the adult version of Brooke Adams's character, whom he had known and loved briefly in North Africa many years before. She has a different memory of that time, and a new life, as the working wife of a cigar heir (Chris Sarandon) who cheats on her with the likes of Lonette McKee, whose brother (the truly dreadful Danny de la Paz) wants both to have a revolution and redeem his sister's virtue. Hector Elizondo, as a poignant, frustrated soldier, Jack Weston, as one of Lester's typical fat men, and Denholm Elliott, as a world weary soldier of fortune, flesh out the rich background. The whole thing takes place over the course of three days, as Cuban society changes from capitalism to Castro, and in this almost Altmanesque multi-layered tale screenwriter Wood also pays mysterious homage to Dashiell Hammett (or John Huston) by naming two minor participants after characters in The Maltese Falcon. Given that the film is 22 years old, MGM Home Entertainment's DVD release of Cuba offers a surprisingly good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1), while audio is a good Dolby Digital 2.0 mono (other options include French and Spanish mono, as well as English, French, and Spanish subtitles). Trailer, keep-case.