By Scott Ross
With The Tamarind Seed we come to an essential concern of movies: The pleasures that lie in a certain level of sheer, sustained craftsmanship.
I remember seeing newspaper ads for the picture when it was released. I was interested, because it starred Julie Andrews, for whom I had and have an abiding fondness, and I’d seen paperback copies of the Evelyn Anthony novel on which it was based, but the movie was there and gone in a trice. What I didn’t know then was that it was written and directed by Blake Edwards, a name I only associated at the time with The Pink Panther cartoons which bore his possessive credit and which were at that time a staple of Saturday mornings, and the splendid 1965 comedy The Great Race, which I’d seen televised during a memorable successive Sunday night airing in 1972.
Finally catching up with The Tamarind Seed on home video, I wasn’t expecting a great deal — the movie dates from a notably bad period of Edwards’ life and career. First came the disaster of Darling Lili, for which he’d received all the opprobrium despite his wanting to make a comedy with his new wife and the studio insisting that, since it was a Julie Andrews picture, it had to stuffed with big musical numbers, expenses be damned. As if that experience was not enough , his exquisitely beautiful 1970 Western Wild Rovers was butchered by Jim Aubrey (not for nothing did they call him The Smiling Cobra) and the writer-director subsequently renounced its follow-up, 1971’s The Carey Treatment, which also bore the traces of Aubrey’s fine Italian hand. He and Andrews retreated to Europe, where Edwards vowed to concentrate on screenwriting and to never direct a picture again. It’s a period he later spoofed in his riotous 1981 Hollywood satire S.O.B., but at the time it was anything but amusing to either him or to his wife and muse.
While The Tamarind Seed broke no box-office records, neither was it an expensive flop, as Edwards’ previous three pictures had been. (Modestly budgeted at a little under 2 and half million dollars, it returned $13 million worldwide.) More importantly, it gave Edwards back his confidence; his next three pictures, resurrecting Inspector Clouseau and rescuing Peter Sellers’ sputtering movie career, are the work of a man who, despite his recurrent depressions (Andrews called him “Blakie,” but to others he was “Blackie”) is in complete command of his craft. And that’s what you take away from The Tamarind Seed; it’s not especially deep, or emotionally resonant, but it’s gently compelling, occasionally inspired, and throughout exhibits the deft touch of a filmmaker who knows not only where to place the camera for maximum impact but also the virtue of intelligent dialogue and when to hold on interesting actors; as Orson Welles noted in reference to John Ford’s penchant for extended medium-full shots, with that sort of confidence, a director “doesn’t need to bang around.”
It helps, of course, to have good material. Despite Leonard Maltin’s belief that the picture illustrates what “a competent director can do with sappy material,” there is nothing remotely “sappy” about Anthony’s 1970 novel. Indeed, 90 per cent of Edwards’ literate dialogue comes directly from Anthony, and what doesn’t imitates her style. And if the writer-director occasionally loses a plangent moment, such as the lingering touch between her protagonists just before a disaster — a memory that will come to haunt one of them — he more than compensates with curlicues of his own, like the long, nearly wordless suspense sequence at the airport which, in its intricacy and wit, is one I can well imagine the original novelist regarding with envy, as James M. Cain was said to feel about the ending Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler developed for Double Indemnity.*
And if Sharif and Andrews aren’t exactly Bogart and Bergman… well, who is? Andrews is called upon to exhibit one of her strengths as a dramatic performer, that rather lovely pensiveness and reserve that hints at troubled waters, and Sharif is allowed to relax the rigidity and tortured emotionalism that marred his work in Funny Girl and Doctor Zhivago respectively and to display an easy charm which can be read more than one way. Indeed, The Tamarind Seed, novel and picture, hinge on our not quite knowing from the start what his senior Russian apparatchik is really up to. He even twits the Andrews character on this, suggesting that she is far too trusting of his nature. When she protests that, despite his stated cynicism he is kind and generous he ripostes, “Kind and generous to you, perhaps – because I hope to get something out of it.” He could mean getting her into bed, his stated aim, or that he hopes to recruit her to the Soviet cause, which is what he tells his Paris Embassy coeval, the catlike General played, with beetle-browed inscrutability, by the catlike Oscar Homolka. We have our suspicions, but it’s to Edwards’ credit that he keeps us guessing well into the picture. (Anthony, going into the characters’ thoughts, tips her hand rather sooner.) This ambiguity is made manifest when Sharif, watching Andrews’ cab drive out of sight at the end of her stay in Barbados during which they (conveniently?) meet, turns away and smiles enigmatically.
Appropriately enough for a movie concerned to a large degree with international spies, and as Peter Lehman and William Luhr point out in the first of their two studies of Edwards, looking is something the picture emphasizes. The human gaze is emphasized during the opening titles, which begin with an extreme close-up on Andrews’ right eye. (Curiously, Lehman and Luhr makes the mistake of thinking the main title sequence is Edwards’ when it’s clearly — and after five seconds, identifiably — the work of the veteran James Bond title designer Maurice Binder.) The people in The Tamarind Seed are constantly on guard against, and watching, each other. Andrews’ Judith Fallows, rebounding from a bad love affair, itself preceded by the death of a husband for whom she feels the guilt of her own waning affections before his fatal crash, eyes Sharif’s Fyodor Sverdlov warily, as he and most of the other characters involved regard everyone else… and with equally good reason. The human gaze is used in especially amusing ways during that airport sequence cited above when, in a sustained shot of Andrews, the British agent assigned to watch her (and of whom she is ignorant) and a KGB operative out to thwart Sverdlov in irregular line on what is rather unsettlingly called a people-mover, each occasionally turning to look around and averting his or her gaze before he or she can be seen watching. And while I don’t go in much for symbols, and am generally leery of filmmakers who do, there is a nicely pointed cut in the picture between Sharif in an old-fashioned elevator at the Russian Embassy and a tiger angrily pacing his cage at the London Zoo that makes for a nice instant metaphor: Like the animal, Sverdlov is trapped in a situation not of his making; unlike the tiger, however, the Russian has contrived a plan of escape.
The filmmaker’s color palette is also telling. That close-up on Andrews’ eye in the titles is seen beneath a stark blue filter; once Sharif enters the credit sequence, everything is in deep (Communist?) red.† Edwards appears to have taken a cue from a passage in Anthony’s novel, in which Judith and Sverdlov visit a discotheque where the patrons are bathed in red light, and from Judith’s assessment of herself as True Blue; hints of blue and red (or pastel pink) are sprinkled unobtrusively throughout the picture, the whole of it beautifully lit and shot by the remarkable Freddy Young.
Anthony’s book is one of many written during the period of the late 1960s and early ’70s, which take as their starting point those deplorable tensions between East and West that, at their worst, damn near ended in what it used to please the bureaucrats to call “mutual assured destruction” and which, out of the desperate lies of a failed hack politician to excuse her predicted loss against a game-show host, again threaten at their worst to annihilate us all. As in John Huston’s 1970 adaptation of Noel Behn’s The Kremlin Letter, another remarkable Cold War thriller that didn’t see nearly the wide audience it deserved, trust in anyone here is the very epitome of foolhardiness. Or, as Anthony Quayle’s security chief Jack Loder observes: “My line of business has taught me three things: No one is to be trusted, nothing is to be believed, and anyone is capable of doing anything.”
The chiefest irony of that statement is that Loder makes it to the very man to whom he should not, if he only knew it, be telling secrets: The British minister Fergus Stephenson (Dan O’Herlihy, billed here as “Daniel”), a remnant of the 1930s Cambridge “Homintern,” complete with bitter, shrewish, status-conscious wife (Sylvia Syms) and the one figure most immediately threatened by Sverdlov’s decision to defect to the West. Anthony has, for the period, remarkable compassion for Fergus in her novel, and Edwards and O’Herlihy share it. While Homolka is allowed to glower and sneer like the proverbial villainous spymaster of yore, O’Herlihy’s Stephenson is depicted as a gentle, likable figure, hideously yoked to a wife who loathes him, who takes in younger lovers and who enjoys throwing that fact in his face. If Mrs. Stephenson is, as she seems, the embodiment of what her husband took to despising in his youth, the audience — even the Western movie audience of 1974 — may well have forgiven him for coming to that conclusion.
That Judith remains in reserve nearly to the end, only at the last succumbing to the blandishments of the would-be lover she describes as “the most persistent man I’ve ever met” (and which sensual pleasure Anthony denies her right up to the novel’s last page) makes her eventual realization of her true feelings all the more moving. I won’t divulge the movie’s climax, or its aftermath, except to note that it is among most quietly satisfying conclusions imaginable to a romantic thriller. Interestingly, Edwards indulges a whiff of emotional fantasy in his use of the eponymous ovule, which the more pragmatic British novelist disdains. For Anthony, as for Sverdlov, the myth of the fabled seed as a kind of fairy-tale is just that; Edwards sides with Judith. His solution may be less practical, but it both satisfies our emotions and buoys the story’s insistence on the existence of a certain innocence necessary to sustain human relations, especially in matters of love.
Which brings me nicely to John Barry’s spare, quasi-Bondian score. It’s essentially variations on a theme, or rather two themes. The first, for Judith, is for all intents and purposes the love motif, but is so hauntingly orchestrated with the composer’s trademark long string lines that it assumes darker dimensions, appropriate not only to the narrative’s intrigue but to the character’s own uncertain heart. The second, which Barry uses to underscore the intricate thriller sequences of the picture’s final third, consists of 12 notes and their close variants, with a terse snare accompaniment interspersed with Morse Code-like accents breaking in at intervals as the tension increases. If you’ve heard Barry’s scores for The Ipcress File and They Might Be Giants, you know the sort of thing I mean. The early ’70s was a period during which Edwards was on the outs with his usual composer Henry Mancini, and it seems to have begun with Wild Rovers (for which Jerry Goldsmith wrote a score whose beauty and melancholy perfectly matches that of the movie); Barry fills in nicely for Mancini, who was equally capable of muscular writing like this but who only rarely got the opportunity.
Approach The Tamarind Seed with the right set of expectations, and I think you’ll find its subtleties and strengths, and the wit with which it regards its people and politics, enormously entertaining. It’s a real writer-director’s picture, made with intelligence for an intelligent audience. Both are as rare these days as the kind of knowing, understated craftsmanship of which Blake Edwards at his best was eminently capable.
*Edwards also juggled the novel’s settings: The Anthony book is laid in Washington, D.C. and New York; the movie takes place in Paris and London. The change is negligible, but for a self-imposed exile like Edwards, Europe must have felt far more hospitable than Hollywood, a town to which in 1974 he never thought he’d return.
†I seem to be arguing against myself here, but I presume the writer-director guided Binder’s basic imagery; I just don’t think everything in the main title can be ascribed to him.
Text copyright 2018 by Scott Ross