Director: Robert Clouse Writers: John D. MacDonald (novel), Ed Waters (screenplay) Stars: Rod Taylor, Theodore Bikel, Suzy Kendall, Ahna Capri, William Smith, Robert Phillips, Janet MacLachlan, and in one of her last appearances Jane Russell.
I caught this film the first time on TV sometime in the the 70's, it so intrigued me that I sought out the Travis McGee series on which the film was based by author John D. MacDonald. The local library had a few, the second hand store a few more I believe the first one I read was "The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper". It wasn't till a tear or two that I actually read "Darker Than Amber" (all the titles are color coded BTY) and by that time I didn't remember how close the film followed the book, this was before the VHS boom so I had no viewing options other than hoping to catch it on TV again.
Taylor as McGee
The film followed McGee's backstory very well. McGee was basically a Florida beach bum, a Korean War Vet, who won a large 52-foot barge-type houseboat in a poker game. His home base was Ft. Lauderdale, Bahia Mar Marina, slip F-18, but his life style enabled him to drift about the inter-coastal waterway, the Everglades, and the Florida Keys, beach combing, drinking, fishing. He named the houseboat boat the Busted Flush, and took his retirement in installments between jobs, when the money ran out he did "salvage consultant" work. The salvage work was retrieving things lost by people, in shady legal deals, scams, flimflams, skulduggery, etc., etc., usually things with no proper recourse for the victim. McGee's price was for half of whatever he recovered, and half was better than nothing. Occasionally McGee was asked to locate missing people in other Gulf States or foreign locals in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. He is a sort of rogue PI without a license.
The Busted Flush
The Busted Flush heading towards Lauderdale
McGee had a quasi partner/buddy Meyer, a retired economics professor, a brainy type that McGee could bounce problems and ideas off of, who lived on a cabin cruiser moored in a slip near by. The only other regular was the "Alabama Tiger" a millionaire, who had the "worlds longest running boat party" on a large yacht also in the Marina. In the film this is changed to the "Alabama Tigress" (Jane Russell). McGee also had an old Rolls Royce that had been in an accident and had been converted into a pickup truck that was called "Miss Agnes".
Bikel as Meyer
All the above is presented as Fait accompli with just a little explanation in Darker Than Amber, based on the 7th novel of the same title in the 21 book series. For die-hard McGee fans its perfect, every base of Mondo McGee is covered, for newbies, it may leave them wondering a bit. Almost every novel has a woman who is a direct part or ancillary to the story line. Some of these women are classic femme fatales, occasionally she is a "broken wing" girl, a woman who has faced/endured some type of trauma. McGee encounters these traumatized women and through time and gentleness "heals" them. These women are babes similar to the babes that say Mike Hammer encounters in a way, but the witting skills of MacDonald are superior to Spillane in this regard and as a result make all the scenarios much more realistic.
The story of Darker Than Amber starts off very noir-ishly. As credits roll to a jazzy tune, a convertible speeds down a deserted highway, street lights wiz by overhead, a passing car highlights a driver (Robert Phillips), and a bleach blond goon (William Smith) sitting in the back seat with a honey-haired woman named Vangie (Suzy Kendall). A street lamp flash reveals that one of her feet is lashed to a dumbbell. The car passes over a long bridge a remote section of the Overseas Highway bridge (the highway that island hops its way to Key West) it reaches the far end and makes a U-turn. After a semi passes the car drives back onto the bridge.
Cut to McGee (Rod Taylor) and Meyer (Theodore Bikel) fishing from a small rental skiff anchored at night under the ridge. The car pulls to a stop above them and the honey-haired woman strapped to the dumbbell is dropped off the bridge. As the car speeds off she sinks immediately from site and she's hooked on McGee's lure. McGee, with Meyer wielding a flashlight, dives in and brings her up. They resuscitate her and head back the Flush. She wont tell them her name, and she doesn't want them to go to the police.
Opening sequence Vangie in car lt., the fishermen McGee & Meyer, as McGee dives into water to rescue Vangie rt.
McGee heads back to the bridge in the daytime and dives to retrieve the dumbbell, (an 85 lb. weight for a 100 lb. woman) but is seen by a lookout who is staking out the "murder" site.
As they cruise leisurely back up the Keys McGee slowly pries the story out of her. Her name is Vangie (Suzy Kendall), short for Evangeline she was literally a Femme Fatale, a high priced call girl working a cruise ship racket that lured drunk wealthy unattached men to a rendezvous at her cabin. The men were surprised by either Griff (Phillips) or Terry (Smith) and killed for their money then deep sixed over the side. She was wanting out of the racket but the only way out is dead.
The gorgeous Suzy Kendall as Vangie
By the time they reach Bahia Mar, McGee and Vangie are an item. But she decides to sneak off the Flush in another noir-ish sequence and go back to her bungalow and retrieve her stash of ill gotten loot. Her two murder racket accomplices Terry (William Smith) and Griff (Robert Phillips) tipped off that she is still alive, spot her while she is on her way. Terry grabs Vangie and while Griff speeds down the highway towards them Terry tosses Vangie into the cars path, the force blasts her through a plate glass window of an ice cream parlor.
the end of Vangie
William Smith as the downright scary Terry
Robert Phillips as Griff
Ahna Capri delivers a good performance as Del, Vangie's co Femme Fatale partner in Terry's murder for money scheme. McGee is able to convince her that she is next to be eliminated.
Capri as Del
The hit-and-run murder of Vangie, sets McGee off on a revenge mission that culminates in a legendary graphically violent, savage, fight scene, between Rod Taylor's Travis McGee and the film's villain, Terry. This Travis McGee film unfortunately came out ten years too late during a counter culture revolution where the values of a McGee anti-hero type establishment character were totally rejected as un-cool, even though it received good reviews. Too bad, it would have been nice to see more books from the McGee series on film, but they would have to be period pieces, and not updated to current times. For that matter it would be nice to see more of any John D. MacDonald on screen. I've heard that Sam Elliott played him in a television movie version of "The Empty Copper Sea", titled Travis McGee (1983). It relocates McGee to California, eliminating the Florida Zeitgeist that was central to the novels, and has him on a sailboat instead of the houseboat, sacrilege!
This film needs a fully restored DVD release of the full Runtime: 96 min, the version I have was recorded off TCM and it is missing a few minutes of the legendary fight sequence (which can be seen here in the finale in a Dutch release):
A 9/10 for McGee fans (it could have been a tad bit longer for character development) and an 8/10 if you are unfamiliar with the material
Roger Ebert ***1/2 out of ****
January 12, 1971
I've always preferred Batman to Superman because Batman's stunts are at least theoretically possible. When he swings from the Playboy Building to the John Hancock Center, he uses a rope. Meanwhile, Superman is holding up toppling skyscrapers and stopping bullets with his teeth. For the same reason I like Batman more than Superman, I like detective movies more than spy movies. Detectives are flesh and blood people who just barely get by; spies, on the other hand, are always pulling out nuclear cigaret lighters and vaporizing helicopters.
We've just about exhausted the spy-movie binge of the late 1960s, and now maybe a trend is beginning back toward detective movies. Last year's "Marlowe," based on the Raymond Chandler characters, was a pale shadow of "The Big Sleep" (1946) or "The Lady in the Lake." But now comes "Darker Than Amber" with Rod Taylor playing Travis McGee, and it's a surprisingly good movie.
For reasons that escape me, Taylor is usually cast as a taciturn, poker-faced strongman whose big acting task is to look calm behind a machine-gun. He's usually seen storming World War II bunkers, and Antonioni wanted him for "Zabriskie Point" precisely because Taylor could be aloof and colorless.
As McGee, however, Taylor is vulnerable and funny and even slightly Celtic. He inhabits the role easily; if you're a John D. MacDonald fan, you won't question the casting. The movie is also at ease with itself. "Marlowe" kept trying for false climaxes, but "Darker Than Amber" has confidence in its MacDonald plot and moves at just the right distance between action and characterization.
I've always thought character was more important than plot in a good detective movie. All detective stories have about the same plot: The detective gets involved with the victim (usually by accident and against his will), makes a moral commitment to revenge, participates in a chase, is himself caught and endangered and then turns the tables in the obligatory final scene of violence. Given this structure, what's important is character and atmosphere.
Chandler knew that, and his Philip Marlowe books breathed with the life of a seedy Los Angeles, filled with failures and rented rooms and girls in bars with stories to tell. MacDonald knows it, too. His books have a certain density to them that make him Chandler's heir. "Darker Than Amber" is set in Florida and the resort islands, but it doesn't use its setting as a mere backdrop.
When Sinatra's "Tony Rome" visited Miami, we had the feeling the movie was actually being shot in Las Vegas with the street signs changed. But the Florida of Travis McGee is fully seen by director Robert Clouse. He takes a set piece, like an evening in the bar of a cruise ship, and fills it with people instead of extras. He handles a confrontation with racists in an understated way that makes us believe it.
Clouse is also good at action scenes; his fist-fights are beautifully choreographed. And he's able to let character actors out of their bags. Watch for William Smith as Terry, a muscle-bound beach boy who likes to throw people off ships. The character is so open to stereotyping that we're pleasantly surprised, toward the movie's end, to discover that Smith and Clouse have made Terry believable.
The whole movie is a lot more believable than a detective movie usually has a right to be. I didn't much expect to enjoy it -- the genre has been in a state of decay since the 1950s -- but I did. Probably because bookers think no one much wants to see a detective flick, "Darker Than Amber" has been opened in neighborhood theaters and will be gone in a week or two. You might try it.
Darker Than Amber (1970)
Screen: 'Darker Than Amber' Opens
New York Times
By HOWARD THOMPSON
Published: August 15, 1970
A neatly economic melodrama called "Darker Than Amber," the kind that has a chesty hero tilting at a nest of criminals, manages to score better than average for this type. One reason is the ready-made source, John D. MacDonald's expertly entertaining paperback series about a tough, self-styled Florida salvager called Travis McGee.
Against authentic backgrounds, these tight, hard-boiled yarns stake out a comparatively small area and involve a group of picaresque characters in some convincing, low-slung hanky-panky—never presented as the case of the century. They also move. So does the picture that opened yesterday at the Pacific East, Orleans and other theaters.
The snug MacDonald format and the modest production shake hands. Score one, Rod Taylor, who happens to be a good actor, looks and behaves like a solid citizen, steering his houseboat around Fort Lauderdale. He seems exactly the kind of guy who would rescue a pretty girl from the bay, where she was thrown by two sadistic brutes, have a bit of a fling with her, fall for her and then go after her killers.
The rest of the picture is the trackdown. Without any particular style, the direction of Robert Clouse simply hugs the incidents close and graphically, as the story shifts to Miami, then nips to Nassau and comes back for a really bone-cracking windup on a cruise ship and the Miami pier. It's easy to see here what that title means—blood.
Two catches, however, and neither is fatal to the picture. Ed Water's screenplay slackens a bit at midpoint. And Suzy Kendall, in the dual role of the mystery girl and one of those underwater "ballerinas," is simply too refined looking and sounding (with her charming British accent) to fit a sordid past. As her chum in crime, a pouty blonde named Ahna Capri is excellent, as is the beautiful Janet MacLachlan, playing a Negro maid, in one stinging vignette of a white racial bigot squelched to perfection. Theodore Bikel looks in amiably, and William Smith is a truly horrendous giant of a psycho.
But Florida steals the show—that and a corner of Nassau and the closing scenes on that big home-bound boat. This is a fringe melodrama, not one of those glittery, creamy Tony Rome specials of Frank Sinatra, and the excellent color photography of Frank Phillips curls around the various piers, shops, side streets and unspectacular byways so tangibly you can almost touch them. They look real, which is mainly why "Darker Than Amber" is a fringe benefit.
Darker Than Amber
by Jay Seaver
"A sadly overlooked Florida-noir classic."
"Darker than Amber" has a place in cinematic history, though probably not the sort its producers intended. They likely thought they were starting a franchise of films based on John D. MacDonald's novels, from the way some actors were billed: A couple of minor, peripheral characters are highlighted, and the opening titles starts with the oddly-ordered "Travis McGee is Rod Taylor". Instead, it got an extremely limited release and is now notable as the film which inspired Bruce Lee to hire Robert Clouse to direct "Enter the Dragon".
One can tell it deserves better right from the start, when a group of toughs drive a pretty but defiant girl to a bridge and throw her over. A weight drags her to the bottom, but not before snagging the fishing line of a couple of men stationed underneath the bridge. The younger man dives in after her. He's Travis McGee, and his companion is Meyer (Theodore Bikel). They take her back to McGee's houseboat, where the girl (Suzy Kendall) initially gives her name as Jane Doe, although after a while she opens up a bit to tell them it's Evangeline. The men who tried to kill her are still out there, of course, and once they realize she's not dead, McGee's going to have his work cut out for him.
Travis McGee isn't quite a private detective - he describes his business to Vangie as "finding lost things", which could put him in the maritime salvage line - but he does come out of the classic Philip Marlowe knight-errant mold. He seems to have some money: He drives a classic Rolls Royce ("Miss Agnes") when on land, and never seems to lack resources in hunting Vangie's pursuers down, but he's not shy about bruising his knuckles, either. Rod Taylor is a nice fit for the part; he's weathered but still has a sort of youthful vitality to him. He spent much of his career as a character actor, and that carries over to his Travis McGee - Taylor captures the laid-back vibe of the character, giving him enough personality and charm that we believe he can be interesting in any situation, while not making McGee larger than life so that he would stick out in a bad way or push other characters off the screen.
And the rest of the cast does deserve watching. I suspect James Booth and Jane Russell would have had more to do if other Travis McGee stories were adapted - Booth plays Burk, the cranky old Scot whose skiff McGee and Meyer were using when Vangie dropped into their lives, while Russell's Alabama Tigress is a widow whose yacht has been hosting the same party for a year and a half - but they don't get much to do here. Theodore Bikel's Meyer is McGee's boatmate and best friend (and, frequently, bartender), perhaps even more laid back but still a good man to have on your side. William Smith is a bulked-up psychotic monster, all intensity and brute force to counter Rod Taylor's cool confidence.
The movie star here is Suzy Kendall, though - we get to see her spitting in Smith's face before we're gobsmacked with just how beautiful she is. She draws eyes to her like a magnet, and it's always worth it. There are some scenes where she's playing excited by the promise of adventure, but the bulk of it is her playing Vangie as something of a reluctant femme fatale. She manages to charm us, making her default state sexy and fun, even though we've seen what kind of mess she's been a part of.
The scene that best illustrates that - a quick flashback while Vangie evades McGee's questions - is as much a testament to director Robert Clouse's skill as hers (it's a great editing choice). Enter the Dragon would later pigeonhole him as a martial-arts director, and you can see the beginnings of that in the fight scenes: It's American-style fist-fights, but they look and feel like real fights, complete with bone-crunching action. That's not all he's got going for him - he's got good timing, knows how to make bad guys appear threatening even when they're just lurking around the edges of the screen, and always manages to give the audience something interesting to look at, even though he doesn't go for a particularly stylized look.
"Darker Than Amber" came and went quickly during its original release, and has seldom been seen since, which is a real shame - it's a very impressive crime movie. It's a pity it never saw the same sort of success as its source material.