“Golden Salamander” (1950)
by A.J. Hakari
(This review is part of CineSlice’s Noirvember tribute, wherein I’ll be taking on each of the films in Kino’s British Noir DVD collection throughout the month of
November May. For Noirvember reviews from other critics, check out the official community Facebook page or follow the #Noirvember hashtag on Twitter.)
It was supposed to be a simple job. Mild-mannered archaeologist David Redfern (Trevor Howard) had been sent to northern Africa, on an assignment to supervise the return of some highly valuable artifacts. But while he initially ignores an accidental run-in with some gun smugglers, he’s inspired to take action by an inscription on one of the statues in his care…as well as by fetching barmaid Anna (Anouk Aimee). Anna’s brother (Jacques Sernas) has fallen in with the gang, and to save the family from future heartache, David offers to help hitch him a ride to freedom back in Europe. But this scheme doesn’t cotton with the crooks, whose ringleader (Walter Rilla) and chief enforcer (Herbert Lom) are itching to exercise deadly force on anyone who dares meddle with their plans.
In proper noir fashion, Golden Salamander tells a story in which everyone would’ve been better off minding their own business. After wrestling not long at all with his sense of moral responsibility, David thrusts out a helping hand without pondering the consequences such an action would bring, all the death and grief in which he’d play a sizable role. Even the bad guys, as suspicious as they are of what our protagonist may or may not know at the start, are shown to have likely left him alone and probably not even hurt anybody else, if his mouth had remain shut. Golden Salamander is brave to wallow in the negative repercussions of playing hero as it does, but alas, its time entrenched in the darkness is more fleeting than few would enjoy. For as long as it features David kicking himself for what he’s done after tragedy strikes, the film doesn’t devote nearly enough exploration as it should into the idea of his newfound backbone stemming in large part from his affections for Anna. Just the faintest notion of casting our hero as a leering old man selfishly cozying up to a young girl is touched upon before it’s disregarded, in favor of painting theirs as a more conventional romance, complete with beachside make-out sessions and frolicking (which, no matter how great of an actor as he was, was not one of Howard’s strong suits). The third act lapses into a fairly tedious cat-and-mouse game between David and the gunrunners, and although it’s not without its suspenseful moments (particularly when Lom’s henchman chases our leads into the middle of a boar hunt), an eleventh-hour and ill-supported twist comes out of nowhere to leave viewers puzzled for all the wrong reasons.
Kudos to Golden Salamander for wading into thematically-murky waters to begin with, but audacity only gets it so far. At some point, the plot has to make good on its ambitions, and while the performers pitch in to bestow some personality upon the proceedings (be it Aimee’s innocent charm or Lom’s menace), the audience is often left without meaty material on which to mentally chew. Try as it might to make the noir grade and subvert some thriller conventions, an “A” for effort is about the highest mark Golden Salamander ends up with.