Sunday, December 4, 2011



It’s strange for me to call a movie “noir” when it’s set in the sunny beaches of Florida, and much of it seems to be set in the warm sunshine of early summer. Yet, for DARKER THAN AMBER (1970), the label works, and they’ve created quite a tense little film noir.

Rod Taylor plays Travis McGee, a man specializing in “finding things” for people. But in DARKER THAN AMBER, he accidentally finds a woman when she falls from the sky into his little fishing boat. She’s pretty, mysterious and alluring. McGee falls for her. But when she’s murdered, he uses his contacts to find something for himself—answers to her murder. Someone will pay, that much we are sure of. The fun comes in finding out how and when.
Taylor deserves a huge amount of credit for the movie’s success. His McGee is a really nice guy, but it doesn’t seem out of place when he starts kicking some ass. Suzy Kendall gives a good performance as the mystery woman, and I have no complaints about it. But this really is Taylor’s movie, and he carries it quite well.

The biggest downfall of DARKER THAN AMBER is the music. Even without seeing the men in micro-shorts, you can tell this flick was made in the 70s by the score. Everything else fits perfectly for that film noir, but then the funk starts up. The score would have been perfect for something a little more pornographic. However, it is hard for me to say too much bad about it because, even though it pulled me out of the movie on occasion, the goofy fun of the music made for a great tension reliever and made me smile.
I have not read the novel, or any of the other Travis McGee mysteries. From what I understand, though, this movie captures the character quite well, and it’s a huge compliment to the movie that now I do want to go read a few of the books. It’s a shame Taylor didn’t do any more McGee films, because I could easily see it becoming a beloved movie series. Instead, we’ll just have to be happy with the one we have.



BOOK: DARKER THAN AMBER by John D. MacDonald (1966)

The Travis McGee series is one of the best in detective fiction. It was published as a series of paperback originals at the rate of roughly one per year in the 1960s, 70s and the beginning of the 1980s. The books follow the adventures of a professional "salvage expert" who lives in Florida on a boat won in a poker match.

The odd residence fits McGee perfectly. He lives through risk, surviving and flourishing through his successful efforts. His "salvage" work is not the typical Floridian boat efforts, but rather a word-of-mouth business for which he recovers items - usually cash - for people who have been cheated or robbed. He charges a fifty percent fee.

The high price keeps away those who aren't desperate, and allows Travis to maintain a semi-constant state of "retirement". The episodes in between provide the meat of the novels, and through the series the reader gets to experience the change of Florida's coast from beachland to developed properties.

In Darker than Amber McDonald bypasses McGee's normal method of acquiring a case and instead literally drops a young woman in front of Travis. McGee and his closest friend are fishing under a bridge at night when a woman plummets into the water, getting tangled in McGee's line. He saves the girl's life and in the course of helping her to recover learns of a prostitution and murder ring that he feels obliged to end.
The action is believable and violent, the progression of events natural, and there is a strong sense of dramatic tension built for the various secondary characters.

It's not the best of the series, but this spiritual father of Repairman Jack always provided an interesting read.

Four stars out of five