Thursday, March 19, 2015

Darker Than Amber (1970)

Bearing in mind their huge fan following and the sheer number of copies sold, it seems somewhat surprising that there have been only two attempts to date to adapt John D MacDonald's 'Travis McGee' novels to the screen.  Even more surprising, it might seem, is the fact that neither of these attempts were judged to be successful.  The first, 1970s Darker Than Amber made a considerable loss on its release, despite the presence of reliable action star Rod Taylor in the lead, thwarting the ambitions of producer Jack Reeve to create a Bond-style movie series, (he also held the rights to at least one other of the novels in the series at the time).  Which isn't to say that Darker Than Amber is a bad movie.  On the contrary, it's actually a very entertaining action film, featuring terrific location shooting in Florida and Nassau and a good cast, headed by the aforementioned Taylor and ably supported by the likes of Suzy Kendall (in a dual role) and Theodore Bikel.  Even Jane Russell makes an appearance.

Perhaps one of the things which worked against Darker Than Amber was the fact that it clearly wasn't a studio backed film and consequently lacks the neat and glossy look of such movies.  Indeed, it has a rather rough around the edges quality, with abrupt edits and sometimes confused plotting.  To be fair, this might have less to do with it being an independent production than with thee style of director Robert Clouse.  All of action expert Clouse's films that I've seen, including his best known, Enter the Dragon, have this same, rough and slightly scrappy feel.   Clouse's trademark action sequences might also have alienated 1970s audiences.  Whilst superbly staged, (particularly the climactic epic fist fight between Taylor and William Smith, playing another of his patented sleaze ball psychos), they are incredibly brutal, with the protagonists left battered and bloodied in a way that audiences of the area weren't used to seeing.  Indeed, the whole film contains a far higher level of violence than was normal for films of the era and is quite ruthless with regard to the fate of its characters, (one major character is unexpectedly dispatched about half way through the film in a brutally depicted hit-and-run attack). 

Darker Than Amber proceeds at a commendably fast pace, launching the viewer straight into the action: the credits have barely finished rolling before McGee and buddy Meyer's night fishing trip is rudely interrupted by a bound girl being thrown from the bridge their boat is moored under.  Whilst this is an arresting opening and gets the movie off to a fantastic start, it also illustrates one of the film's biggest problems - a lack of proper exposition.  Although excessive exposition can fatally slow a film down, a lack of it simply confuses the viewer.  We get no explanation of who McGee and Meyer are  - one gets the impression that the audience is expected to know who McGee is, (the opening titles have already announced 'Travis McGee is Rod Taylor', the character being billed higher than the star).  We have to wait at least another fifteen minutes until we learn that he's a self-styled 'salvage expert' who recovers things for a fee.  We never get any adequate explanation of who Meyer is and what he does, (he's McGee's best friend who berths his houseboat next to McGee's and is a former economics lecturer who sometimes does freelance consultancy work for governments and corporations).

Which brings us, I think, to the core reason why Darker Than Amber failed at the box office: it seems to have been made for Travis McGee fans, or at the very least made under the assumption that the character was so well known that there was no need to explain who and what he was.  The problem with that is that successful films have to draw in a far wider audience than just hardcore fans of their source material.  The reality is that, no matter how best-selling the books had been, the vast majority of casual film goers in 1970 neither knew nor cared about the literary success of the character and had likely never read any of the books.  I have to be honest here and say that, although I've read some of the McGee novels, I'm not a great fan of them.  McGee is one of those incredibly capable heroes who are never flustered by anything and have an answer for everything.  They're never wrong and never seem to make mistakes.  Frankly, they make me feel inadequate.  I prefer my heroes flawed.  Like me.  However, I do like the film, for all its flaws.  Taylor's presence in lead helps a great deal - he succeeds in making McGee, in my opinion, a far more personable and slightly less self confident character than his literary counterpart.  Certainly, I didn't find him quite as, well, smug, as the character in the books.

It's a pity that the film was so poorly received by audiences back in 1970 - Taylor's movie career was beginning to wind down at this point and, had Darker Than Amber been a box office success, it might have revitalised his appeal as a leading man.  But it wasn't a success and McGee wouldn't return to the screen until 1983 with the failed TV pilot movie Travis McGee, starring a miscast Sam Elliott.  Over the past few years there has been renewed talk of another attempt to adapt the McGee novels for the big screen.  At one time Leonardo DiCaprio was incredibly linked to the project (surely even worse miscasting that Sam Elliott).  More recently I've seen Christian Bale's name linked with the proposed film - better casting than DiCaprio, but still, surely, no one's idea of Travis McGee?   But until this attempt sees the light of day (if it ever does), Rod Taylor remains the definitive screen Travis McGee.



Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home