Darker Than Amber (1970)

Director: Robert Clouse
Starring: Rod Taylor, Suzy Kendall, Theodre Bikel, William Smith, Ahna Capri, Janet MacLachlan, Jane Russell, Robert Phillips, James Booth
Based on the novel by John D. MacDonald

With the buzz on the blogosphere about a cinematic revival of Travis McGee I thought it was worth revisiting Rod Taylor’s Darker Than Amber. As you all know by now, I am a pretty big fan of James Bond. As a kid reading the Pan paperbacks, I was always interested in the adverts for other similar spy adventures that were at the back of the novels. One of the ads that continually caught my attention were for the Travis McGee books by John D.MacDonald. The blurb ran like this:

The tough, amoral and action crammed stories of the popular Travis McGee as he tangles with passionate women and violent men to uncover blackmail and corruption from California to Mexico.

First of the Travis McGee series now filming starring Rod Taylor.

Call me stupid, but these Travis McGee blurbs imparted two bits of misinformation to me. The first, because these ads ran at the back of spy novels, I thought that Travis McGee was a spy – well I was mistaken there. And secondly, underneath the spiel, there was a list of Travis McGee books available, so I assumed that Rod Taylor was starring in a film called The Quick Brown Fox. Wrong again. Before the days of the internet, all this information was impossible to verify. I used to scour TV guides looking for the ‘lost’ spy film The Quick Brown Fox.

Now with the benefit of hindsight, and the resource of the world wide web, I now know that the film I was looking for was Darker Than Amber. And I also know that Travis McGee did return one more time in a TV movie, Travis McGee: The Empty Copper Sea in 1983, starring Sam Elliot in the role. I’ve never seen it, but most reports are that it is pretty abysmal, but I digress. So after twenty-five years, I have finally I tracked down a copy of the Rod Taylor Travis McGee movie. Was it worth the wait?

The film opens at night with a pretty wild pumping jazz pop tune. No musical credit is listed on the version of the film I have seen, but it is groovy, man! As the tune plays and the credits roll, a convertible speeds along a road and over a bridge. On the river, below the bridge, in an outboard skiff, Travis McGee (Rod Taylor) and Meyer (Thedore Bikel) are doing a spot of fishing.

The racing convertible does a U-turn and returns to the centre of the bridge. The car contains four people, Terry Bartel (Willian Smith), Griff (Robert Phillips), Del Whitney (Ahna Capri), and Vangie (Suzy Kendall). Bartel gets out of the car and lifts Vangie out of the back seat. She seems to be doped up on something. Her eyes are open but she seems incapable of movement. Bartel has tied a 85 pound set of dumbbells to her feet. Not realising that McGee are Meyer are underneath the bridge at this time of night, Bartel throws Vangie over the side and into the river.

As Bartel and friends speed off, McGee dives into the river, swims down and cuts her free from the weights. Despite her being tangled up in their fishing lines, McGee manages to get her to the surface and into the skiff. McGee and Meyer take Vangie back to McGee’s houseboat, ‘The Busted Flush’, where they remove a fishing barb from her leg and patch her up. Despite her ordeal, Vangie doesn’t want any police involvement.

On the next day, McGee takes the skiff back to the bridge and to the spot Vangie was dunked. He dives down with a rope and finds the set of weights she had been tied to. He ties the rope to the dumbbell and swims back to the boat. Then he hauls up the weights. Watching from the bank, pretending to be fishing is a bloke named Farnsworth. Once he sees what is going on, he makes his way to the nearest phone booth and calls Bartel.

Maybe the smart thing for McGee is to be thankful that the girl is alive and leave it at that. But he’s always been a sucker for a damsel in distress, He decides it’s best that he takes Vangie away for a little while. He releases the moorings on his houseboat, and with Meyer along for company, the three of them cruise off.

It isn’t long after that Bartel comes looking for McGee, but the landing master refuses to tell him where he has gone. What hasn’t been apparent, so far, is that not only is Bartel a cruel man, but he is also a violent psychopath. Bartel looses his temper with the landing master and kills him.

Over the cruise, McGee forms and attachment to Vangie, but the good life can’t last for ever, and they dock in Fort Lauderdale. Vangie wants to go to her apartment and retrieve some money she has hidden there. McGee suggests that it isn’t a smart move and that he should go. But she doesn’t listen and sneaks out on her own anyway. It isn’t a wise move, and Bartel is watching her apartment. And as she is walking on the street, Bartel grabs her from behind. Bartel signals to Griff, who is behind the wheel of a car, and who races along the street. At the last second, Bartel uses his brutish strength to throw Vangie out into the middle of the road into the path of Griff’s speeding car. She is killed instantly and thrown back through a glass shop window.

Vangie’s death makes Travis McGee pretty mad, and from then on this film moves into pretty familiar territory – it becomes a pretty slick revenge flick. The film climaxes with a vicious, kick-ass ship board fight between McGee and Bartel. For those of you who have seen the television print of this, the fight has had approximately two minutes cut out because of the violence (but quite a few grey marketeers have uncut copies).

I enjoyed most of Darker Than Amber. It does get a little slow in the middle, and there is something not quite right with this movie. At times it seems like a lot of middle aged men, pretending that they are youthful and still ‘with it’. Rod Taylor is lumbered with some terrible fashion, like a white cotton mesh top, sleeveless denim shirts that are way too long, and a whole collection of dandy neck kerchief’s. I think some of it is designed to show off Rod Taylor’s physique, and the guy is in shape. I guess if you’re gonna go up against William Smith, who is built like a brick shit-house, you’ve got to be in shape, right? But on Rugged Rod, it almost comes off as camp. Rod Taylor is not beef cake – in some ways he is a throw back to the old school actors like Bogart and Gable. They were tough but never had to parade around without a shirt.

After all these years, I am glad I tracked down Darker Than Amber but it isn’t anything special. I think the thrill of the chase was more exciting than the bulk of the film. But it isn’t a turkey either. I am surprised that it hasn’t received a proper DVD release.

Incidentally, director Robert Clouse’s next film would be Enter The Dragon, which also starred Ahna Capri.

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  1. Here’s a quote about John D. Macdonald that I often see bouncing around the web (I hesitate to quote from Wikipeida, which we all know is generally stuff we can wipe our asses with, but this seems legit). “Macdonald is by any standards a better writer than Saul Bellow, only Macdonald writes thrillers and Bellow is a human heart chap, so guess who wears the top grade laurels?” That’s from Kingsley Amis.

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