The first of numerous manly-man adventure flicks directed by Robert Clouse, Darker Than Amber is a grim piece of business filled with macho stoicism, nasty fistfights, and sexy babes. It’s escapism with a melancholy stripe, too brutal and tragic to pass for the average Saturday-matinee fluff, even though it’s not actually deep or probing. Beefy Australian Rod Taylor drives the piece with his appealing performance as quasi-investigator Travis McGee, a creation of prolific mystery novelist John D. MacDonald. McGee lives on a houseboat and shares adventures with his portly buddy, Meyer (Theodore Bikel). Although McGee claims to work only for a 50% finder’s fee whenever he recovers something a client has lost, he’s really a man of idiosyncratic but steadfast principles. Accordingly, the minor enjoyment of Darker Than Amber is watching how romantic entanglements with beautiful women draw McGee out of his shell and transform him into a violent crusader. Also noteworthy, of course, is the procession of 007-style spectacle and thrills, from mysterious dames hanging around gambling parlors to nefarious killers testing McGee’s mettle in personal combat. No viewer is likely to encounter anything in Darker Than Amber that he or she hasn’t seen before, but it’s a tasty slice of pulp fiction nonetheless.
Things kick off when hulking thug Terry (William Smith) tosses unconscious beauty Vangie (Suzy Kendall) off a pier with a heavy weight tied to her legs. Unbeknownst to Terry, McGee sees the fall from a nearby boat and misinterprets it as an attempted suicide, so he rescues Vangie. This draws him into not only a love affair with the beautiful blonde, but also a dangerous mystery. Things get episodic very quickly, so there’s not much in the way of forward momentum, but most of the vignettes are interesting. For instance, a long passage of McGee getting dragged into a remote swamp by a would-be killer has an Elmore Leonard-esque sardonic edge. Kendall’s seductive quality bounces nicely off Bikel’s courtliness and Taylor’s swagger, while Smith, with his massive biceps and absurd bleach-blonde hair, channels villainy with characteristic focus and intensity. Better still, Clouse keeps things edgy and moody even when the story lags, finally shifting the movie into high gear with the brutal showdown between McGee and Terry that concludes the film.
Darker Than Amber: FUNKY