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Darker Than Amber (1970)

Rod Taylor plays Travis McGee, the boat-bum hero of 21 novels by John D. MacDonald.

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 in installments.

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 therapeutic sex.

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 attempt.

(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 it:

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.

-- William 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.


"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 out.


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IMDb // Wikipedia

Pressbook items (PDF)

Roger Ebert: thumbs up

Summary and review at Permission to Kill blog

Details about Travis McGee and the author of the McGee series of books:

The Thrilling Detective's Travis McGee page

The Travis McGee Series

The Trap of Solid Gold: Blog about John D. MacDonald's work

JDM Homepage: Website devoted to John D. MacDonald



VHS listing on

Cinema Retro Demands a DVD

Entire movie on YouTube
with subtitles

The fight scene on YouTube



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.