Cuba Crossing

Front Row at the Movies by Shirrel Rhoades

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Like most older folks in Key West, I knew Capt. Tony Tarracino. I used to sit at the bar in his self-named saloon and chat about the “old days.” Sometimes we would go up to a balcony overlooking Duval Street and catch the breeze.

He told me stories of how he came to Key West as a young man, on the run from Miami gangsters. Seems he and his brothers had run a scam on dog track betting. Their ancient television would pick up the broadcast at the track. One brother would phone the results to another brother in a telephone booth who would signal the results to a brother in a passing car that would drive down the street to the betting parlor where Tony was waiting to go in and place a bet before the race results were communicated to bookies.

He told about running a fishing fleet that earned him a partnership offer with a major frozen fish purveyor, but he turned it down.

He told me about his term as mayor of Key West.

He even told me about various wives and children, too numerous to kept track of in my note taking.

Sometimes he would talk about his days smuggling arms. But I had already seen the movie. You can see it too at the Tropic Cinema, as part of the Key West Bicentennial Celebration. Titled “Cuba Crossing,” the 1980 action film has also been called “Assignment – Kill Castro” and “Sweet Dirty Tony.”

Directed and co-written by Chuck Workman, this earlier film belies the fact that Workman later won an Oscar for Best Live Action Short (“Precious Images.” 1986).

The movie starts with an announcement that the events you are about to see are true and that the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

There are few innocents here.

Maybe that’s why Tony’s character is called “Tony.”

This high sea adventure stars Stuart Whitman as Tony. Robert Vaughn appears as Hudson. Woody Strode is Titi, Tony’s first mate. Albert Salmi plays Delgato, a cranky lawman. Raymond St. Jacques is at his ironic best as Mr. Bell. Michael V. Gazzo is spot on as a mobster named Rosselini. Maria-Louis Gassen is well cast as Tony’s main squeeze Maria. Caren Kaye is on hand to help entice Tony to carry out the mission. And sexy Sybil Danning makes a too-brief appearance as a gun moll.

The story: Hud is on his way to Key West for a meeting with Mr. Bell. Bell heads up a US government program to assassinate Castro. A veteran of 1961’s Bay of Pigs, Hud still wants to see Castro dead. So Bell pairs him up with a local mobster named Rosselini. The mob guy wants to reclaim all of his holdings in Cuba which were naturalized by Castro after the Cuban Revolution.

Turns out, they need the help of a local bar owner – Capt. Tony – who “knows the Cuban waters like the back of his hand.”

To assure Tony’s cooperation, Rosselini kidnaps his girlfriend Maria and her son.

Of course, this is a tale of governmental backstabbing, with Tony set up to be a fall guy. But he’s too wily to let that happen.

“Cuba Crossing” is a hodgepodge of Bay of Pigs newsreel clips, Cuban stock footage, and cheesy action scenes filmed around Key West.

The film was obviously made on a “shoestring budget.” Nonetheless, there’s plenty of action – fights, shootouts, explosions, and shark attacks. Even man-eating turtles.

And the story more-or-less holds together, despite all the subplots.

As one moviegoer sums it up, “ ‘Cuba Crossing’ is a decent ‘B’ movie, if you’re just looking for some entertainment on a rainy Sunday afternoon.”

What’s more, if you’re paying attention, you will spot the real Capt. Tony Tarracino doing a cameo as a watcher on horseback on the Cuban coast.

Email Shirrel: srhoades@aol.com

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