Almost two years ago, guest blogger Kevin Comer wrote about JDM and McGee and the silver screen. You can read his post here. He noted how JDM’s first encounter with Hollywood’s interest in McGee was not a happy one.
The McGee adventure chosen was Darker than Amber, the yarn in which Meyer has his first full co-starring appearance. You’ll recall that it involved a gang of villains and hookers that set honey traps for lonely single men on cruise ships and murdered them for their money. The victims are drugged and tossed overboard, no corpus delicti. The story gets under way when one of the hookers is dropped off a bridge, as Trav and Meyer are fishing beneath it. Trav rescues her and the story roars into action. You can read my take on the book here.
The thing JDM most disliked about the first script was how Meyer was portrayed as a buffoon. He objected and Meyer was improved. And JDM certainly was a little starstruck when he visited the set. But in the end, he detested the film and fulminated about never selling McGee film rights again. He said, “[the movie] was feral, cheap, rotten, gratuitously meretricious, shallow, and embarrassing.”
I finally got around to seeing the 1970 flick a few days ago. You can watch it for free on YouTube. It seems to be a cruddy VHS dub from a broadcast or cable channel in England. (The announcer has a Brit accent.) But it allows you to see the film in all its cheesy, cheap, late-’60s glory. It does not do Travis McGee much credit.
The performance of Rod Taylor as McGee is bland and forgettable. He’s a generic sort of tough guy hero with little of McGee’s true flavor. Casting Theodore Bikel as Meyer was a good choice. But if the role as written was an improvement over the original version, I can’t imagine how bad that must have been. Meyer here is simply a dull, uninteresting sidekick who scarcely earns his keep—not the treasured boon companion we know him to be.
Vangie—she who was dropped over the bridge—is portrayed by Suzy Kendall, a classic, innocuous 1960s pretty blonde about as threatening as a pussycat. The Vangie of the book was darkly exotic (part Hawaiian) with a predatory quality to her. Recall that McGee found her a little scary. He had no interest in romping her. The title refers to the dead eye of Vangie, seen by McGee at the morgue. As near as I can tell, Kendall’s eyes are blue. What? There were no dark-haired, dark-eyed, olive-skinned femme fatales available from central casting?
The main heavy, Terry, was nicely portrayed by the great William Smith—a mainstay of B movies whose first film credit was in 1942. He was one of the leads in my favorite TV western, Laredo (1965-67). He has the longest, most prolific IMDb listing I’ve ever seen, hundreds of credits. That’s him (left) and Rod Taylor (right) down below, having their final knock-down-drag-out in a stateroom.
William Smith and Suzy Kendall (briefly Mrs. Dudley Moore) are still with us. Rod Taylor and Theodore Bikel both died in 2015.