Golden Salamander (1950)

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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.

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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.

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8 thoughts on “Golden Salamander (1950)”

  1. I thought this film opened very strongly with Neame and Oswald Morris doing wonderful things on dark roads amid a first rate thunderstorm. It finishes well too but it sags a bit in the middle, and there’s a certain stiffness from Howard and Anouk Aimee. Overall though, it’s a pretty entertaining film and easily passes the time.

    1. You’re right about it being slow in parts, even the bit where he first enters the cafe unfolds slowly, but still entertaining enough. I really agree about Anouk not being interesting with Howard, I mean I can see her potential and she was so young but yes they were stiff. Really enjoyed overall though, thanks to Howard, Lom and interesting themes. Thanks.

  2. I loved “Golden Salamander.” It’s hard to imagine a movie being made today, which revolves around the theme of “Not by ignoring evil does one overcome it, but by going to meet it.” The author, Victor Canning, was apparently quite popular back in the day. Another one of his books, “House of the Seven Flies,” was made into an American movie that you might have seen (“The House of the Seven Hawks”). I watched “The House of the Seven Hawks” a long time ago, and it impressed me so much that I read the book. The book, “House of the Seven Flies,” is like “The Golden Salamander” in that it revolves around a moral dilemma – should I do what I want, what is easy, or what is right? But they’re really first-class action stories, not preachy, and I love how the archaeologist gets drawn out of the dead past and into a real-life action adventure. Your post made me think of Victor Canning again, so I looked him up on IMDb. It looks like he wrote a lot of TV before I was born – definitely a popular author, not just something you’d have to dust off in the library. According to his book jacket, he led quite an eventful life, though maybe not as much as his characters.

    1. What little I read up on Canning yesterday, he was praised as a writer of more intelligent adventure, with these serious themes and an intellectual/professional hero, which are the things I really enjoyed in the movie. Howard is there for the work but is a totally believable action hero once he stumbles into the crime and gets involved. And on top of not wanting to face danger, just being in a land with such different customs, it would be that much easier to just walk away. Haven’t seen House of the Seven Hawks, have to check that out, thanks for the extra info!

    1. That’s funny, check it out soon and see if you like it. I really like Trevor Howard, he makes a good intellectual hero like this.

  3. Interesting sounding film, thanks for the review. I’m a sucker for the ‘intrigue and adventure in an exotic setting’ stories, I’m sure I’ll be checking this one out eventually. And I also loved “House of the Seven Hawks;” I second floodmouse’s recommendation!

    1. Good to hear another vote for Seven Hawks, I’ll have to check that out. This is slow in parts and has some flaws but I liked Howard’s cool character, Lom is super, some different action scenes, etc. Thanks!

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