Saturday, January 24, 2009

Darker Than Amber (1970)

I recently became a fan of Travis McGee.

McGee is the creation of famed Floridian author, John D. MacDonald, and from 1964 to 1984 he starred in 21 novels. He lives on a houseboat in Fort Lauderdale, Florida (my hometown) and takes it easy until he runs out of money. When that happens he does what he refers to as "salvage" - helping people get back what's rightfully theirs and keeping half the value for himself. Over the course of the novels McGee's character grows and changes as does the ever-present backdrop of Florida. McGee and MacDonald are prolific modern literary figures and I feel like a mook for not knowing them sooner. MacDonald was Carl Hiaasen's literary progenitor, the boat slip where McGee kept his boat, "The Busted Flush", is a designated literary landmark - all this in my own backyard. I set out to do some research to make amends for lost time, and in doing so I found this:

Travis McGee in action! The climactic fight of "Darker Than Amber", a 1970 film directed by Robert Clouse ("Enter the Dragon") and starring Rod Taylor. This fight scene blew my mind and, it turns out, is regarded as one of the greatest fight scenes of all time. You can see the rawness in this fight - it's manic, it's real. Taylor and his co-star, William Smith (as the villainous Terry), used no stunt doubles, few precautions, and actually traded blows.

I hit that wall so hard, man. That was such a tough fight scene. We didn't use any stunt doubles at all. He broke three of my ribs and I busted his nose. ...After he busted three of my ribs, I hit him with a bottle, a real one. ...He busted three of my goddamn ribs and I couldn't even breath and he was still hitting me.

When he whacked me with that board, he missed the knee pad and hit me right there [indicating a spot just below the knee]. To this day when I talk to him, I accuse him of doing it on purpose. Luckily that was the last take of the whole movie.
Smith's character, Terry, is a perfect maniac villain. Check out how easily he looses control:

Unfortunately, those two clips are all that exist on the Internet, and "Darker Than Amber" has never had a proper home video release. Most versions are censored, missing the bulk of that exceptional fight scene. It's never been released on DVD. The only uncut
versions available are bootlegs with Dutch subtitles. Wikipedia claims that "pristine American prints disappeared years ago." This movie looks too awesome to be kept from the viewing public. Perhaps if the long-rumored movie of the first Travis McGee novel, The Deep Blue Goodbye, gets made we'll get to see "Darker Than Amber" released in all its glory.

In the meantime, check out this great article about MacDonald and the McGee series: John D. MacDonald: Florida's Master of Mystery by Sue Henry, and then pick up one of his novels.

- Cap


Nick Jade said...

I think I actually own a Travis McGee novel. I bought it from the library. I will have to read it now. MAN. How has a fight that good never been captured again? It is way better than the one in They Live.

Anonymous said...

that was totally brilliant i have been looking for this movie for years and this is first time i even seen a clip
if any one can get a copy of the whole movie please email me at stiofainx(replace with@)
i love travis mcgee i have read the whole series from start to finish several times a few years apart cant wait til i feel is time to reread again

Adam Lounsbery said...

Nice write-up! I recently saw Darker Than Amber at Anthology Film Archives. Roy Frumkes showed a 16mm print from his personal collection. It was pretty fuzzy and the sound wasn't always great, but I didn't mind. The film was really good, and it was like going to movies back in the grindhouse days. I'm not a huge fan of the Travis McGee books I've read, but I have friends who love the series like nothing else. If you're a fan it's definitely a movie worth seeing. Rod Taylor really nailed the McGee character, and William Smith was an amazing villain.

Anonymous said...

Outside of the Supposed "fact" that the fight scene was REAL,might suggest WHY it's deemed the "Greatest fight scene ever" It's like the Emperors new clothes. It probably was REAL to much extent but That in ITSELF should NOT make it Legendary.
Watch the Fight scene in SHANE,then talk to me!

Anonymous said...

You can buy Darker Than Amber at super strange video dot com........