Castor’s Underrated Gems – Darker Than Amber (1970)

Darker Than Amber movie poster

Firstly, this Travis McGee test run deserves better than an infuscate, pixelated VHS-rip DVD which was the only outlet to watch this humdinger. Walter Hill’s Extreme Prejudice and Trancers also suffered from similar transfer issues. The nighttime scenes are borderline indecipherable but the soundtrack isn’t terribly waterlogged thankfully. Beware, the DVD version that runs 91 minutes, it excises the film’s infamously dropsical scuffle and displays chopping editing for scene buttons.

Instead of being a proactive participant from the beginning, I’m always fond when the hero is unwittingly wedged into an in media res scenario such as Vangie (Suzy Kendall) nearly drowns from a dumbbell around her ankles while Travis (Rod Taylor) is fishing. While Taylor has always been an anabolic Cro-Magnon, his physique is impressively sinewy here (as exemplified during a snippet in which he doing leg lifts with the 85-pound weight).

He must’ve been heavily lucubrating for his quarrel with Terry (William Smith with the platinum-blonde locks of Sam Jones) which graduates from stage choreography to closet-splintering, mirror-fissuring reality within seconds of the first punch. The unfettered fight is so bone-crunching that it was meticulously studied by Steven Soderbergh for Haywire. On top of the bruised pride, it resulted in three broken ribs and a fractured nose from both assailants.

As ambidextrous as he is with his fists, Taylor is also a dashing romantic lead and he is more enamored with Vangie than gumshoe skulduggery. It’s Taylor’s chivalrous underbelly that causes him to be curt with the medical examiner who ogles a female corpse’s breasts. Travis is an unconventionally dichotomized character. He is a lounging beach layabout with glasses of booze until the 35-minute mark where he finally dons a suit and necktie.

Florida noir is a sultry change-of-pace from metropolitan alleyways. The detective mystery is so roborated that even a schlockmeister like Robert Clouse (‘Enter the Dragon’ and ‘Gymkata’) can’t sabotage it. It is unquestionably his best movie. After a box office implosion, the John D. MacDonald franchise fizzled which is a shame since Darker than Amber is a crackling, hard-boiled thriller.

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