Physical deterioration, censorship, studio control, formatting, and limitations of time are among the many reasons that movies end up being altered, cut, or just plain lost, sometimes before they even make it to the theater. Each period in movie history had its own challenges, but the 1970s were especially difficult.
During this period, after a movie had been shown in the theaters and then at the drive-ins, it would be sold to the television networks. To be shown on television, movies needed to be reduced in length to fit into a two-hour time slot, allowing for commercials. Widescreen formats were replaced by pan-and-scan, if they were lucky; more often than not, the sides were simply lopped off, forced onto the Procrustean bed of the television screen with its 1.33 aspect ratio. And, of course, much of the sex and violence, now allowed by the elimination of the Production Code in favor of the ratings system, had to be edited out for viewing in prime time, when children might be watching.
This would not have been so bad had someone made sure that the original film was preserved. But it would not be until the 1980s that the average person had cable television and video cassette recorders, not to mention the eventual emergence of DVDs and widescreen televisions. In the 1970s, for a lot of movies, all that survived was the edited-for-television version.
Perhaps this is no more so than for Darker Than Amber. This is not a great movie. But it is a darn good one. I saw it back in 1970 at the drive-in, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Little did I know at the time what a sad fate the future had in store for it. When it was shown on television, it was butchered, for the reasons given above. When the movie became available on video tape years later, it was the edited-for-television version.
Recently, I purchased a DVD version, a two-disc set no less. One version had Dutch subtitles; the other did not. Neither one is what one might hope. First of all, neither one preserved the original 2.35 aspect ratio. One of them seemed to be a 1.6 aspect ratio; the other, 1.85. But upon closer inspection, I concluded that what I was really watching in both cases was the 1.33 aspect ratio with a little removed from the top and bottom to give it a widescreen appearance.
However, in watching the movie, I never got the feeling that I was missing out on anything as far as formatting was concerned. Some directors, like Sergio Leone or Sam Peckinpah, made full use of the widescreen format, so when their movies were first shown on network television in the 1.33 format, you always had the feeling that there was something going on just outside the frame. But with Darker Than Amber, I never got that sense on these DVDs.
Also, I believe the versions on these two DVDs are uncut. Here too, I must rely on intuition and a memory that is unreliable after fifty years. When watching movies in the 1970s on television, I could usually tell when something had been edited out. There would be a jump from one image to another that seemed discontinuous. That was the impression I had when watching the movie on video tape about thirty years ago. I never got that impression with these DVDs.
One of the DVDs was obviously recorded from a television broadcast. I know, because while watching the credits at the end, an announcer came on to inform us of a movie about General Custer that would be shown next Tuesday. However, this may be a television broadcast made recently, perhaps on some cable channel, in which case editing was not felt necessary. I wondered if the manufacturer of this DVD might get in trouble for pirating. But then I thought to myself, “No one has given a damn about this movie for fifty years, so why should they start now?”
Anyway, Darker Than Amber is a movie full of muscle and manhood. When the movie begins, a bodybuilder named Terry (William Smith) and another bodybuilder named Griff throw Vangie (Suzy Kendall) off a bridge into the water below with her left foot tied to a dumbbell that I wouldn’t have been able to lift with both hands. As it turns out, Travis McGee (Rod Taylor) and his friend Meyer (Theodore Bikel) are fishing down below, and McGee dives in the water to save her.
When someone in a movie dives into the water, do you ever hold your breath to see if you could do what the hero in the movie is doing? Well, I held my breath to see if I was a real man like McGee. I drowned.
Terry noticed the men in the boat below, so he hired someone to sit on the bridge and await developments. Sure enough, the man sees McGee return to the scene and retrieve the dumbbell he untied from Vangie’s foot. And he notices the name of the motorboat, which McGee hired from a man named Burk. Through the boat’s name, Terry tracks down Burk in order find out who rented that boat. When Burk refuses to say, Terry, muscle-bound brute that he is, beats Burk to a skull-crushed pulp.
Vangie has it made on McGee’s houseboat, living the good life, having hot sex with McGee, once it pleases him to do so. He advises her against going back to her motel room to get her money, offering to get it for her, but she takes off on her own anyway. Word gets to Terry that she is back. He grabs her on the street and throws her into the path of Griff’s speeding car, her body flying through the window of an ice-cream parlor.
McGee finds out about both Burk and Vangie. It’s time for revenge. He goes to her motel room, where he encounters Griff. Griff is outside in a bathing suit, working out with a dumbbell, and then greasing up his body, rubbing his own muscular flesh with passionate selflove. He chases off McGee before he can get into Vangie’s room, but when McGee returns later on, Griff is waiting for him with a gun. He forces McGee out into the woods, making him dig his own grave. But McGee slings the shovel into Griff’s gut, and after a brief struggle, kills him with his own gun. Then he dumps his body in the grave, covers him up, and tosses away the shovel.
But he still has to find Terry. McGee learns that Terry, Griff, Vangie, and another woman named Judy had a racket going. One of the women would seduce some old man on a cruise ship, figuring he would carry plenty of cash with him. After the man was knocked out with a little chloral hydrate, the men would come in and take the money. Vangie wanted out, so that’s why she was killed.
McGee makes contact with Judy when the cruise ship she and Terry are on stops at a port. He convinces her that she will get what Vangie got unless she goes along with his plan. She is skeptical, asking what happens if Terry finds out. McGee says he’ll take care of Terry. “You’ve got an answer for everything,” she replies. “Listen,” he tells her, “I never put mine in with a loser.” She agrees, reluctantly.
Later, on the ship, in McGee’s stateroom, the original plan having changed, Judy is again in disbelief about McGee’s plan to handle Terry. “You really think you can take him,” she says, thinking his self-confidence is completely unjustified, knowing how strong Terry is. Again, McGee becomes irritated with her doubts about his ability. In the course of their conversation, he finds out that in many cases, Terry wouldn’t wait for her to slip an old man a Mickey Finn. He would just burst into the room early so he could have the pleasure of smashing the geezer’s face in, after which he would throw the body over the rail. When she sees the look of disgust on McGee’s face, she says, “It wasn’t me. It was Terry.”
Later, McGee puts the dumbbell, complete with seaweed, in Terry’s bathtub full of water. That makes Terry furious. But what McGee didn’t count on is that Terry is just as good at detective work as he is, for he figures out that McGee was the one that saved Vangie, and he finds out where his stateroom is. When McGee returns to it, he sees Judy lying prone on the bed. She is dead, probably from a broken neck, but thinking she is sleeping, McGee shakes her.
Then Terry comes charging out of the bathroom, beginning the fight scene for which this movie is notorious. Stories are told of how the fight turned real, resulting in a broken nose, some broken ribs, and a knocked-out tooth. The result is that McGee gets his comeuppance, because Terry beats the crap out of him. We see McGee staggering down the hallway, his face battered and bloody, as Terry takes off, figuring he’d better get away before the cops find out about Judy. When Terry gets to the gangplank, he sees a woman that McGee hired who looks just like Vangie, waving at him from behind a high, chain-link fence, yelling, “Hi, Terry.” This, along with the dumbbell in the bathtub, was part of McGee’s plan to unnerve Terry.
I guess you could say it worked. Terry goes berserk, flinging people out of the way left and right trying to get to her, even losing his hairpiece in the mayhem. The Vangie impersonator looks scared, but McGee recovers in time, pushes his way down the gangplank, picks up a two-by-four, and kneecaps Terry, who collapses onto those busted knees, after which McGee delivers the coup de grâce with a fist in the face.
Somewhat later, back on his yacht, the Vangie impersonator offers herself just as the real Vangie did. But McGee says he needs time to get over the real Vangie first. That won’t take long.