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Darker Than Amber
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by Jay Seaver

"A sadly overlooked Florida-noir classic."
5 stars

"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.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=18089&reviewer=371
originally posted: 10/15/08 11:31:58
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User Comments

7/02/13 michael peterson roger ebert gave darker than amber 3 and a half stars. great film. 4 stars
3/31/13 William Kennedy Best fight scene on film...ever! Kendall is Gorgeous. Saw it as a teen in a movie theatre a 5 stars
1/08/10 bryan couldrey what i wouldn't give to find this on a torrent site 5 stars
3/04/09 mr.mike Like a tv-pilot with the violence amped up. Good cast helps. 3 stars
10/17/08 tiffany pettey suspenseful and enthralling worth a look 5 stars
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  14-Aug-1970 (PG)


  14-Aug-1970 (PG)

Directed by
  Robert Clouse

Written by
  Ed Waters

  Rod Taylor
  Theodore Bikel
  Suzy Kendall

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