Schlock Corridor: DARKER THAN AMBER (1970)

Before Leonardo DiCaprio ruins the revival of the Travis McGee series, look back at the 1970 adaptation of DARKER THAN AMBER, starring a real man in the McGee role.

Darker Than Amber plays like a film that was made only for people who know the books; there’s precious little backstory or exposition, which becomes sort of wonky when the production design and location work are so faithful to the stories.

When a girl tied to an 85-pound anchor is thrown off a bridge under which McGee is night-fishing, he finds himself caught up in a con game involving hookers and rich old bachelors on a cruise ship, led by Conan The Barbarian’s father, William Smith. The casting is all pretty great, really: in stills I thought Rod Taylor was too old and squatty, but he’s a goddamn bruiser, really sells it. Ted Bikel is good as brains/sidekick Meyer, but if you haven’t read the books you have no idea who he is or why he’s there. Suzy Kendall and Anna Capri are drop dead gorgeous. William Smith and his bodybuilder sidekick are like oily, low-rent Bond henchmen - Red Grant crossed with Wint and Kidd.

Darker Than Amber has a few scenes - courtesy of Enter The Dragon‘s Robert Clouse - which would give Tarantino a boner. There’s a great POV shot from the bottom of a full bathtub, and a pretty brutal hit and run killing, but the direction only sporadically rises above tv-movie level. The movie is further hamstrung by a script that only occasionally recalls the flavor of John D. MacDonald’s books. McGee is written as more of an affable bohemian than the staunchly anti-establishment, deep thinker of the books. The plot to foil the villains is sort of Scooby-Doo-esque in nature, and I’m not sure but I think McGee got shitfaced during that plot for no apparent reason. The film’s centerpiece/climax is a sort of jaw-dropping fistfight which, according to Hollywood legend, consists of Taylor and Smith actually beating the hell out of each other (hairpiece spoiler!):

The film has a great score by John Carl Parker (creator of many 70s TV show themes), which you can hear in the above clip. It’d be great to see the film widescreen; the cropped full frame of the nth generation video I watched feels crowded a lot of the time. The filmmakers do a decent job on the Florida location work, but the film could have used some more. Today the film seems to have been orphaned by its distributor, and the way I hear it, no one is sure where the rights currently reside. Now someone needs to get Rod Taylor (who turned up in 2009’s Inglourious Basterds as Winston Churchill) to sit down for an interview/commentary track, sort out the rights and give us a proper home video release before DiCaprio’s attempt hits screens.