Director: Ronald Neame
David Redfern (Trevor Howard) is an archaeologist driving through Tunisia toward the coastal village of Kabarta, where he will visit a man called Serafis (Walter Rilla). Serafis has a collection of Etruscan artifacts that Redfern must catalogue and ship to the British Museum. When a landslide blocks the road and Redfern proceeds on foot, he comes across a ditched truck full of weapons. He helps himself to one gun and hides when two men return to the vehicle.
He makes his way to the inn, run by French exile Anna (Anouk Aimée, credited as Anouk), to whom Redfern instantly takes a liking, and later that night he meets the two truckers he saw earlier, Rankl (Herbert Lom) and Max (Jacques Sernas). Though Redfern lies about his arrival route, the men deduce that he did see their scattered shipment and therefore poses a danger to their gunrunning operation. All these characters’ paths and fates keep crossing, since Rankl works for Serafis’ criminal syndicate, Redfern falls in love with Anna, and she’s worried about her brother Max’s criminal activities.
The police chief (Miles Malleson) and the cafe bartender/piano player (Wilfrid Hyde-White) are just two of many locals with unclear but strong loyalties to Serafis. On fishing trips, Redfern befriends Max, and learns that he’s a talented artist who wants and deserves better than to be stuck under Rankl’s thumb. Max puts all the gun money aside for Anna’s good and dreams of getting away from crime and back to France. Redfern, by this point just as concerned with Anna’s happiness, arranges Max’s escape to Paris, but the plan is foiled when Rankl notices Max is wearing a jacket borrowed from the Englishman.
Redfern is advised by a local (Peter Copley) that it’s best to “keep his eyes shut,” but as he catalogues the items in Serafis’ cellar, Redfern is haunted by the epigram inscribed on a golden salamander: “Not by ignoring evil does one overcome it, but by going to meet it.” Redfern turns that phrase over and over in his mind and concludes it’s a message telling him to confront the evil he’s found here.
This is a cerebral adventure thriller with an intellectual hero finding himself in a travel brochure, a culture clash and a conspiracy. Location filming in Tunisia treats us to authentic sights and details like Serafis’ ornate Moorish villa, the beach and village, an exciting chase during a mountainside boar hunt, plus several discussions of area culture and customs. Redfern’s Western outlook has him questioning native superstitions, dependence on lucky charms and adherence to old adages, and debating the ethics of gun running. Serafis’ control of the already fractured infrastructure means that the phone and lights are cut at his will and no messages pass through since the postmistress is part of the syndicate, and the troubles have Redfern crying, “does nothing work in this blasted country!?” It’s less developed than an Englishman is used to but on top of that it’s an inescapable quicksand community where every move sinks people deeper in dangerous secrets. When he interferes, Redfern is told he expects too much, oversteps his bounds, has no right as a stranger nor jurisdiction or capability as a scholar. Rankl assesses Redfern as stiff and passionless, but the archaeologist displays intelligence and physicality that convinces you he could think, fight and shoot his way out of anything. He’s a determined hero, by occupation needing to unearth and extricate relics, and by nature driven to right wrongs and rescue people.
There’s a good deal of action and suspense from things like a murder being interrupted by an endless flock of sheep, or a mistaken identity teasing Redfern’s fate when the consular officials finally arrive to investigate. Lom is a wonderfully brutish and creepy villain and Serafis a cool, soft-spoken one who’d be right at home in a Bond movie, and both are relentless. At the end, Redfern’s entrance scene at the inn is repeated, and the bartender says for the second time, “you look like a man who needs a brandy;” boy, does he ever.
The Golden Salamander was based on a novel by Victor Canning.
My review of Ronald Neame’s The Man Who Never Was, a favourite espionage film featuring a fine Stephen Boyd performance.