We gave it a B+
Set in Cuba on the eve of the 1959 revolutionary takeover, Sydney Pollack’s Havana is like a smart, ascetic version of an old-time Hollywood romance — it’s Casablanca remade as an art film. And on its own terms, it’s fairly entertaining. The central character, Jack Weil (Robert Redford), is a professional American gambler who travels from one cosmopolitan playground to the next. He’s like James Bond without the espionage. Handsome and carefree, Weil is a hustling, middle-aged Lothario who’s a genius at high-stakes poker and totally without allegiances. He simply loves the fast lane: the money, the endlessly available women, the existential high of sitting around poker tables opposite rich, powerful, and dangerous men.
Weil has an apartment in Havana, and he loves prowling the city’s bars and cafes and hanging out with locals like Joe Volpi (Alan Arkin, in a zesty performance), the gruff casino manager with underworld connections who’s trying to line up the biggest poker game of Weil’s life. To Weil, the city is Heaven — the hottest of the hot spots. What he hasn’t counted on is all these scruffy proles who are threatening to overthrow the American-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. They’re out in the hills, taking orders from a young firebrand named Castro, and they aren’t kidding around. The movie is about how Weil, thrown off course by the impending uprising, meets a woman he can’t resist caring about, Bobby Duran (Lena Olin), the Swedish-born wife of an aristocratic but committed revolutionary (Raul Julia).
Poised between romance and splashy historical spectacle, Havana nevertheless lacks the fire and juiciness you’d expect from a movie set in the ultimate sin city of the late ’50s. We’re shown that American tourists went down there to experience the thrill of letting go. Yet even as we’re seeing glimpses of S&M shows, the feverish recklessness of the place never quite takes hold. That’s because Pollack has something else on his mind. If some Hollywood romances are, in essence, about infatuation, others are unambiguously about love — and Havana is of the latter variety. The movie takes its wistful, slightly melancholy tone from Redford, who gives a sly, delicate, and moving performance, his richest in years.
Weil is meant to be a playboy, and Redford never draws back from what a hard-shelled rotter he is. In one scene, he beds down with two hot-to-trot American tourists at once; it’s difficult to say whether Weil is behaving out of lust, boredom, or simply a jaded pleasure in his own magnetism. At the same time, Redford purges the character of sleaze. He has some of the suavely ironic detachment that marked his work in The Natural and Out of Africa, and for a while this makes the performance feel rigid and a little phony. Redford never quite seems like the flashy hedonist he’s supposed to be playing. It’s as though he were scared of letting himself get too dirty.
Yet Redford’s reserve also works for the film. Here, as in The Way We Were, Pollack has crafted a romantic fable about two partners who are stymied by clashing values: One cares only about himself, the other about her political cause. Weil is an updated version of the Humphrey Bogart loner, the self-sufficient hero who falls in love and is then drawn into committing a moral, selfless act, even if it means giving up the woman he has found. In Casablanca, we sensed early on that Bogart’s cynicism was a cover, the hard-bitten mask of a fallen romantic. What draws us to Redford, a far less passionate actor, isn’t what he shows but what he holds back — from himself as well as from us.
Here, as in most of his other romantic roles, Redford doesn’t project the quality of someone who needs a woman to complete him. With his golden-dreamboat looks, craggier now but still magnificent, and that far-off gaze (it has become almost Zen-like), he seems impeccable all by himself. But then, the romance in Havana isn’t about ”sparks.” It’s about Weil’s realization that he’s capable of love — and that he wants it, badly. And while the film never pretends that Weil is going to care about Castro’s revolution, it lets us see that Bobby’s sense of commitment is what makes her beautiful to him. There’s a nifty moral balance built into the movie’s setting. Even though Bobby and her husband are portrayed as courageous idealists (and Weil, by implication, is shown to be a spoiled American), we know that the Communist regime they’re about to bring to power won’t come close to living up to their dreams; in many ways, it will be as oppressive as what it replaced. And so Weil’s political cynicism seems both naive and worldly.
Radiant, with a face as subtly expressive as those of the great silent-movie actresses, Lena Olin gazes at Redford with exquisite longing. Just basking in that gaze warms him up. As a character, Bobby doesn’t have the resonance that Weil does, in part because her motives are never less than pure. Yet Olin gives her a haunting quietude and soulfulness. It’s easy to believe that this is the one woman on earth Weil would care about. In the movie’s audacious final scene, Weil, standing alone on a beautiful, desolate beach, confesses his thoughts to us in voice-over, and you realize you’ve been watching the story of a rather shallow man whom love has made wiser. Thanks to Redford’s performance, the character lingers. B+