Though relatively unknown today, Golden Salamander (1950), Ronald Neame’s second directorial effort, is one of those unexpected but welcome cinema excursions that actually delivers on its exotic title. On the surface, it appears to be no more than pure pulp, a B-movie thriller, but the casting, direction, music score and atmospheric setting elevate it to A-picture status. It might not be great art but it’s total escapism, executed with flair.
The story hooks you from the beginning like most tales that begin on a dark and stormy night. David Redfern (Trevor Howard), a British archaeologist, is driving on a treacherous winding road en route to Tunisia where he has been summoned to catalog some Etruscan artifacts that were salvaged from a sinking ship. A landslide prevents him from completing his journey and he is forced to abandon his car and seek refuge from the rain. In the rock slide rubble, he discovers a lorry loaded with guns and then spies an approaching car with two men, Rankl (Herbert Lom) and Max (Jacques Sernas), who turn out to be gun-runners working for a local crime syndicate. Redfern manages to slip away from the scene undetected and makes his way to a nearby inn, run by Anna (Anouk Aimee, billed here simply as “Anouk”), which becomes a temporary base for him.
As the narrative unwinds, Redfern realizes that his knowledge of the gun-running operation puts him at risk and is further complicated by his relationship with Serafis (Walter Rilla), the sinister kingpin of the smuggling ring who is masquerading as an antiquities dealer and Redfern’s contact for the Etruscan rarities. At the same time, Redfern feels an undeniable attraction to Anna, who is desperate to help her childhood friend Max break away from his criminal cohorts and go straight.
The film moves along at a brisk clip, is blessed with some witty dialogue (it was based on a novel by Victor Canning; his novel The Rainbird Pattern became Hitchcock’s Family Plot) and benefits greatly from the exotic Tunisian locations.
There is one unusually striking visual sequence when Redfern discovers a corpse floating underwater in the bay and the climax, staged during a village boar hunt as our hero and Anna are chased by Rankl, generates real tension in the manner of The Most Dangerous Game.
Filmed on location in Tunisia, Golden Salamander seems like an unusual film project for Trevor Howard following his critically acclaimed performance in Carol Reed’s The Third Man but part of the lure may have been the exotic location. Howard was an actor with wanderlust and loved visiting other countries, especially when he was being paid for it.
Golden Salamander was the first major film production directed by cinematographer/screenwriter Ronald Neame; he had previously directed a low-budget crime thriller in 1947 entitled Take My Life. When Neame first offered the film to Howard, he turned it down but then changed his mind and was soon delighted to be playing opposite French actress Anouk Aimee, who was the love interest. Aimee was at the very beginning of her film career (she is barely seventeen years old here) and had just attracted international attention for her role in Andre Cayatte’s Les Amants de Verone (1949). During the filming Howard and Aimee became very close, resulting in rumors of an affair but no evidence exists that it did, much to the relief of Howard’s wife, who was genuinely concerned for awhile that the picture might ultimately cause the breakup of her marriage.
Herbert Lom is appropriately sinister as the brooding Rankl and had already established himself as a swarthy heavy by this point in his career; he would follow this with an equally menacing gangster role in Jules Dassin’s superb noir Night and the City (1950). The real scene stealer in Golden Salamander, however, is Wilfred Hyde-White as Agno, a dissolute bartender/pianist at the inn whose jaded persona hides his true allegiances. He was 47 years old at the time he made this and younger than I’d ever seen him. He brings an appealing impishness to the role and always has a devilish twinkle in his eyes whether he’s tickling the ivory keyboards in a smoky haze or acting as an informer for both sides. By the film’s fadeout, he has become as indispensable as Dooley Wilson’s Sam in Casablanca.
Among the impressive behind-the-camera crew on Golden Salamander are William Alwyn, the film’s music composer who provides snatches of “Clopid Clopant” and “Pigalle” during Agno’s piano ramblings, cinematographer Oswald Morris and art director John Bryant. Alwyn had already scored such key British films as Odd Man Out (1947) and The Fallen Idol (1948) and would go on to make memorable contributions to the soundtracks of The Crimson Pirate (1952), A Night to Remember (1958) and Burn, Witch, Burn aka Night of the Eagle (1962). Morris, of course, is a three time Oscar nominee for best cinematography on Oliver! (1968), Fiddler on the Roof (1971 – he won the Academy Award for this) and The Wiz (1978). And Bryant is an equally honored film industry professional, garnering Oscar nominations for his art direction/set decoration on Caesar and Cleopatra (1945), Great Expectations (1946 – he won for this), and Becket (1964).
Ronald Neame had already been working in the British cinema as a cinematographer since 1933 so he was no newcomer on the scene when he made Golden Salamander. But for a second directing effort, this is a streamlined, superbly crafted genre film, something Neame would master on a larger scale in his later years in such categories as the heist film (Gambit, 1966), the disaster epic (The Poseidon Adventure, 1972) and the espionage thriller (The Odessa File, 1974). Neame was also the esteemed director of such British cinema classics as The Horse’s Mouth (1958), Tunes of Glory (1960) and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969).
The filming of Golden Salamander did provide its share of comic anecdotes during the on-location shooting in Tunisia. “One of the best scenes on location was, Neame recalls (in Trevor Howard: A Gentleman and a Player by Vivienne Knight), unfortunately not for the picture. Shooting was taking place in an open market of a native village which was filthy, squalid and filled with Arabs buying and selling fly-covered local produce: a nice natural scene with thousands of free extras. The script called for Trevor Howard to work his way through the crowd in the market place. The camera was set up, creating a stir in itself since none of the locals had ever seen one before. Then came a loud hailer emitting interpreted pleas to the crowd to behave quite normally and naturally, just as though the camera wasn’t there and, this above all, “Please don’t look at the camera.” It was a crane shot and there could be no rehearsal. It was all set. Ronnie Neame lifted his megaphone, shouted “Action!” and all hell was let loose: the Arabs started to fight, stalls were knocked over and a number of participants were knocked out. In the middle of it all Trevor Howard strugged with shock, amazement and other people. When, with some difficulty, a degree of order was restored and Arab had stopped tearing into Arab, it transpired that the word ‘action’ had triggered off something they had either seen in films, or thought should happen in films: action equalled fighting. But Ronnie Neame found out that, once they got the hang of it, many of the voluntary extras were quite good. So, up to a point, was the film.”
Typical of the critical reviews that Golden Salamander received upon its theatrical release is this one by Bosley Crowther in The New York Times: “The Britishers’ taste for the exotic in their romantic adventure yarns is quite evident in “Golden Salamander,” which came to the Little Carnegie yesterday. And this liberal indulgence of preference is most fortunate in this case, for the authentic Tunisian backgrounds and atmosphere of this film are its best points-these and a pretty young lady who now goes by the name of Anouk…As the scientist, Trevor Howard delivers his usual sincere and forceful job, demonstrating as much evolution into a bold adventurer as the script will allow. Under Ronald Neame’s easy-going direction, he emerges from his academic calm rather abruptly but with absolute assurance once the melodramatic heat is turned on. Herbert Lom is extravagantly evil as the gunman of the gun-running gang and Walter Rilla is exquisitely silky as the lord of a Moorish villa and boss of the mob. A vast lot of outdoor action within the crowded streets of a Tunisian town and in the midst of a noisy native boar-hunt (for the climax) brings color to the film.”
Golden Salamander has aired before on TCM during a mini-Ronald Neame retrospective and will probably turn up again in the future. But for now, you can stream it on Netflix, view it on YouTube in its entirety (the print is surprisingly decent) or purchase it on DVD if you have an all-region DVD player and can still find a DVD copy of it from The Best of British Collection series.
* This is an updated and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the TCM website.
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