Darker Than Amber (1970)
Rod Taylor plays Travis McGee, the boat-bum hero of 21 novels by John
McGee is a Korean War veteran, a former college football player and a
dropout from conventional society. He lives in Fort Lauderdale aboard a
52-foot houseboat called The Busted Flush, named for the poker hand that
won him the boat. McGee earns his living as a salvage consultant -- recovering
missing or stolen goods for half their value -- and takes his retirement
The 6-foot-4, 205-pound, heavily-muscled McGee has sandy hair, blue eyes,
a deep tan and a winning smile. (Rod Taylor's not quite as tall, but the
rest fits!) He routinely rescues lovely women, fixes broken hearts and administers
In "Darker Than Amber," McGee and his pal Meyer (Theodore Bikel)
rescue Vangie (Suzy Kendall), a beauty who's thrown over a bridge with a
weight tied to her ankle. The murder attempt was courtesy of her partners
in crime, and despite McGee's best efforts, they're successful on a later
(But first, in a series of scenes that diverge from the book, McGee gets
romantically involved with Vangie. The scenes work well, movie-wise, and
establish McGee as the tough-but-tender character that he is. Also diverging
from the book, the movie Vangie is a blonde Brit, not a dark-haired Eurasian.)
Following Vangie's demise, McGee sets out to retrieve her hidden cash
and to trap the bad guys, with the help of Meyer and a Vangie look-alike.
The pursuit leads McGee to Nassau, aboard a cruise ship where the con men
work their crimes.
The movie's climax is a brutal fight scene that's celebrated in many
reviews and lamented for being censored in video releases of the film. Here's
how actor William Smith (who played the murderous Terry Bartell) describes
We didn't use any stunt doubles at all. [Taylor] broke
three of my ribs and I busted his nose ... but you don't even get to see
it in [the cut] version. After he busted three of my ribs, I hit him with
a bottle, a real one. ... He busted three of my goddamn ribs and I couldn't
even breath and he was still hitting me. ...
[Later...] When he whacked me with that board, he missed
the knee pad and hit me [just below the knee]. To this day when I talk
to him, I accuse him of doing it on purpose. Luckily that was the last
take of the whole movie.
Smith Fights the Good Fight
The characters in "Darker Than Amber" are well-cast: Theodore
Bikel as Meyer is perfect, and the villains are suitably creepy. The location
shots are cool, too, especially for someone who lived in Fort Lauderdale
at that time.
I like this movie mostly because I can't resist the convergence of two
of my favorite men -- Rod Taylor and Travis McGee. I wish Taylor had taken
on the entire McGee series -- but with a director and scriptwriter that
could mine the richness of the MacDonald stories and characters better.
MACDONALD ON MOVIE MCGEE
"The Red Hot Typewriter," a biography of John D. MacDonald, has
an extensive section on "Darker than Amber."
At first, Robert Culp was to be cast as Travis McGee. But Culp fell
through, much to MacDonald's relief: "Culp was a disaster,"
biographer Hugh Merrill quoted MacDonald as saying. "No comprehension of
the touch needed. ... Glad he will not be McGee." That reaction
contrasted to his appraisal of Rod Taylor. Although apprehensive at first --
"Culp too wispy and elegant, and this one maybe too squat and hairy and
direct." But never fear, once the actor and the author met, "We hit
what is called instant empathy," MacDonald said, adding:
"I like the guy. He has a face that looks lived in,
and he projects a masculinity that can glaze the young female eye at
seventy paces. But what matters to me is that he understands what McGee is
all about -- the anti-hero, tender and tough with many chinks in the
armor. ... The final effect will be the amalgam of my McGee and Rod
Taylor's McGee, and I trust Rod's wit, irony and understanding to make the
whole greater than the parts."
Another book, “A Friendship: The Letters of Dan Rowan and John D
MacDonald 1967-74" contains a series of correspondence between MacDonald
and his friend Dan Rowan of “Laugh In” fame. Here's one passage,
from MacDonald to Dan Rowan on Oct. 8, 1968, writing about the appearance of
Robert Culp on "Laugh In" and the choice of Rod Taylor as McGee:
Culp was a disaster. No comprehension of the touch
needed. Glad he will not be McGee. Suspect he is in a stage of
self-importance where he cannot take direction….
Well, I find that Rod Taylor is going to be McGee and
they start shooting on location on Jan. 15th in Lauderdale. Dorothy and I
went to see him in a motion picture Sunday evening, a thing called
"Dark of the Sun." I
have never seen so many people killed in so many ugly ways in 95 minutes.
I could not tell much of anything about Taylor. He looked a bit jowly,
seemed to be in good shape, but the part did not give him any chance at
the light touch. My God, a murderous mercenary in the Congo who doesn’t
let himself get involved with people or with right and wrong doesn’t
have much chance to fun it up.
Culp too wispy and elegant, and this one maybe too squat
and hairy and direct, but if they will do lots of rewrite on that stinking
script and give him some very deft and knowing direction, it could work
Click for gallery
Many thanks to Arthur Tashiro for the following account
of a screening of "Darker Than Amber"
on Oct. 22, 2012, at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.
The print of the movie was like new. A pleasure to look at. The print
is basically the same cut I saw at a theater back in the late 1970s. The
movie, as you know, was withdrawn from circulation for a while and
re-edited to remove its R rating. I think this is the re-edited version
-- longer than what you might see on TV but shorter than what originally
went out to theaters. The story is coherent, so I think the cuts took
out some moments of violence and perhaps nudity.
Rod does well in it. I think he's let down by the script, a little. The
emotional core of the movie ought to be his accidental but real
relationship with Suzy Kendall -- that's what motivates the story, which
otherwise has him bulling his way around Florida like any other action
hero. Both he and Kendall play their parts well, but there's something
heavy-handed and rushed about the way their scenes are constructed.
Instead of letting the audience see a connection between them grow, the
movie gives viewers a set of illustrations: now they're mad at each
other, now they're tender, now some other thing.
So the movie is welcome but frustrating.
I enjoyed Arthur's comments about the relationship between the
characters. Not only are they insightful, but it's refreshing to see a
review that isn't dwelling on the famous fight scene.