The Tamarind Seed
Director: Blake Edwards / Screenplay: Blake Edwards from novel by Evelyn Anthony / Editing: Ernest Walter / DP: Freddie Young / Score: John Barry
Cast: Julie Andrews / Omar Sharif / Anthony Quayle / Dan O’Herlihy / Sylvia Syms / Oskar Homolka / Bryan Marshall
A sharp writer for American TV back in the Fifties, Blake Edwards learnt his craft on a string of forgettable dramas, until breaking-through as a director of films with Operation Petticoat (1959), featuring Tony Curtis & Cary Grant. This was followed by the timeless Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). Truman Capote might’ve adapted his own novel, but it was Edwards who conjured the good-looking ‘Fairytale of New York’.
More pictures followed, that Edwards either wrote, directed or both. The Pink Panther (1963) was one of them: you might’ve heard of it… But by 1970, Edwards had married an icon in Julie Andrews and his future projects would – for better or worse – usually include her. I can see the logic: why not employ one of the world’s brightest stars in your films, if it ensures that both her fee – and your’s – stay en famille?
Marking Andrews’ return to the screen after a four-year hiatus, The Tamarind Seed was an adaptation by Edwards, of a gentle Cold-War spy romance by author Evelyn Anthony. Again, I can see the logic: the Cold War was at its chilliest in the early Seventies and cinema was continuing to invest heavily, in productions that reflected the ongoing paranoia. Given new life by the James Bond franchise in the Sixties, the ‘spy genre’ had become a lucrative seam, offering narratives ranging from the wish-fulfilment of Bond itself, through to grittier fare. But if spy movies made for good box office, what about spy-romance? Edwards was willing to give it a go: after all, with his wife’s name on the posters, ‘Tamarind couldn’t fail.
The production was part-financed by Lew Grade’s ITC concern, as a sweetener to lure Andrews into a variety series for his own TV company. That might explain why certain key talent, having all been recently employed by Grade, signed-on to the project. Prominent among them was composer John Barry, whose contribution – a lilting, offbeat score – was to be a highlight of the eventual film. That Barry had also scored a number of Bond films to that point, could only add class to ‘Tamarind.
Another, was DP Freddie Young, who’d already photographed Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia (1963); one of three collaborations with David Lean. Young had also shot You Only Live Twice (1967), so had form in the genre. ‘Tamarind would be further graced with a title sequence from Maurice Binder, whose distinctive main titles had graced the lion’s share of Bond pictures to that point.
Binder’s title sequence for ‘Tamarind, follows the Bond template to the point of pastiche. Shot in monochromatic, intersecting panels featuring the two – silhouetted – leads and featuring Barry’s theme, about the only thing missing are close-ups of a firing pistol and lissome models! This would prove as close to a Bond movie as Edwards would ever get and it’s fun to speculate how he might’ve directed – and written – an entry in the franchise. I mention this because, as ‘Tamarind played out, I was struck at the film’s intelligence (no pun intended) and its willingness to explore abstract, philosophical concepts in the pursuit of its narrative.
In other words, when given permission, Blake Edwards could write…
The picture opens with a pre-occupied Judith Farrow (Andrews) walking along a wave-kissed Barbadian beach at sundown. Edwards keeps things fluid when he drops-in snippets of flashback; first showing Farrow asking her boss for a holiday at short notice and then, when she’s saying ‘good-bye’ to her lover in a ‘phone call. So we know she’s there to retreat and salve emotional scars: which explains why she’s somewhat curt with the suave Russian – Sverdlov (Sharif) – who turns out to be her neighbour in the hotel complex.
We learn his name from a diplomatic reception being held in Paris, where his boss – General Golitzin (Oskar Homolka) – is in attendance sans his loyal deputy. Sverdlov’s absence is noted by ‘our man in Paris’, Jack Loder (a marvellously gruff turn by Anthony Quayle). Also in attendance, is the British Air Attaché, Capt. Richard Patterson (a colourless David Baron); the man whom Farrow has just broken off with (on this evidence, I can’t say I blame her. Maybe it was the uniform?). Then, there’s Fergus Stephenson, the British Consul or somesuch; his role is never fully explained. Stephenson (an impish Dan O’Herlihy) is there with his wife Margaret, played here with acid-tongued relish by Sylvia Syms.
So you get the picture: the Brits have noticed Sverdlov’s absence: This Might Mean Something…
For a spell back in The Cold War, there was a peculiar specialisation within the intelligence community, called ‘Kremlinology’. It involved analysing the faces seen on the rostrum, during Moscow’s annual May Day parade and working-out whether they were ‘in’ or ‘out’ of favour, depending on their proximity to the leader. Moreover, someone’s absence might give more away than if they’d been present, so I’m wondering if, in her original novel, the author is tapping into that same ‘palace intrigue’ with this scene.
Back in Barbados, our two crazy kids don’t know any of this is going on, though Sverdlov rightly suspects, given his occupation (as should Farrow: what kind of Russian man would be out and about, in Barbados circa-1974, if he WASN’T a spy?!). Nope: to the outside world, they’re just two people trying to get away from it all. Except Sverdlov’s more persistently charming (as only Sharif could be) and wins a dinner date with the reluctant Farrow who, to this point, is coming across as something of a ‘blue stocking’ in Andrews’ hands. She’s beginning to lose me, I admit.
Watching her in these early scenes, I’m struggling to believe Andrews is even capable of conceiving of an affair with a married man, let alone pursuing one: where’s the outward manifestation of grief, for the love-affair that led here here in the first place? Instead, she’s reading Kingsley Amis! It’s a blow for the film’s credibility, before we even get to Sharif: his Sverdlov, is someone I wouldn’t trust in a lift between two floors. Sverdlov’s amorous persistence is borderline harassment, so perhaps Farrow’s brusque indifference to his charms is understandable. After all, she IS on holiday to get over a failed love affair, so this tall, dark handsome stranger is probably the last person she wants cluttering-up her life.
Back in France, Loder attends a conference of his peers from NATO to discuss Sverdlov. It’s here, that he discovers that Farrow – ‘one of ours’ – is in the same hotel. Not only that, but she works for someone employed ‘in a sensitive position’ at the British Home Office. There’s now a real risk that Sverdlov might attempt to recruit her as a Soviet ‘mole’. After all, why else is Sverdlov there?
Back in Barbados, Farrow & Sverdlov visit a local museum, in which they read a card explaining a novel exhibit: that of a Tamarind seed, vaguely shaped like the head of a man. Legend has it that, wrongly-convicted of a crime he didn’t commit, a slave about to be hung from a Tamarind tree, proclaimed that it would ‘vindicate him’. The seeds, then, bear witness. This story rattles both Farrow (who decides to find said tree) and Sverdlov who, having learnt a little of Farrow, now begins to confide in her, details of his own.
Sverdlov: ‘You came here to run away from your love affair. But I came here, because I have nothing to run away from.’
It’s a line that belies a deep fault line in Sverdlov’s political allegiance. As the evening wears-on, he expands his revelations to include a failing marriage with a well-connected Party loyalist and the advantages this has delivered: along with the disadvantages should they split. Sverdlov is admitting he no longer trusts in the Soviet Project. Instead, he now believes he has something of potential value to the west: Himself..
Next day, our might-be-lovers visit the plantation in whose grounds this magical transmutation apparently took place. Needless to say, their search is, umm, fruitless, but it affords Edwards an opportunity to demonstrate his ability as a Director, by compressing a lengthy exchange of dialogue across consecutive scenes. We watch them stroll about the plantation, before returning in the hotel’s red Mini-Moke. Yet throughout, Edwards runs dialogue unconnected with the visuals: a free-flowing conversation that only catches-up once we join Sharif at the wheel of the Moke. It’s a neat trick. Edwards is conveying a slab of narrative which, had it been presented as a lengthy two-shot, would’ve been indigestible. This approach, by contrast, breaks it into manageable chunks. He’ll repeat the trick more than once in this picture, but this is the standout example. It’s also key to the plot that we get it, too. For it’s during this drive, that Sverdlov fully explains himself:
Sverdlov: That’s what ideology is. A weather vane, which is subject to the wind of expediency or whim. There was an Empress of Russia, who made it a high crime to wear pink. Did you know that? It was her favourite colour. Some people in your Western World feel the same way about someone with a red tie. None of it makes sense. In a way, that’s the glory of materialism. In the end, it teaches you to despise everything that’s material’.
This impassioned rationale signals the film’s third act, which trips over a droll, processional plot involving the uncovering of a key British traitor (a revelation telegraphed in the first reel) and, yes, the machinations around Sverdlov’s avowed defection to The West. There are a couple of neat reversals and one final twist to the thing I didn’t see coming, but it’s never less than the sum of its – humdrum – parts…
At no time, did I ever get a sense of the jeopardy that Sverdlov’s supposed to be in. The Soviet (read: ‘KGB’) apparatus that he’s trying to escape, is rendered with near-laughable naïveté. Sverdlov has plenty of opportunities to simply shrug-off whatever lackadaisical observation he’s apparently under and walk straight into British protection as-represented by Loder. Although mentioned before, Julie Andrews’s miscasting bears repeating. At no time did I find her credible, which marks ‘Tamarind as little more than a vanity project for both her and Edwards; an excuse for an extended shoot in Barbados.
And yet… There’s a real spark to the finished picture that feels intriguing. Given his pedigree as a screenwriter, it seems clear to me that Edwards chose to adapt Anthony’s novel because of its adult themes and not despite them. Then there’s the question of his wife. Andrews’ background lay in musical theatre; a culture where, had she stayed, an equal opportunity to stretch her range or depth, would likely never have arisen. So, I’m persuaded to believe that she took the role, not just because of its-then topicality and glamorous locations, but because of the opportunity the role presented, to grow as an actress.
As a result, The Tamarind Seed falls between the cracks, uncertain of what it really wants to be. It’s no espionage thriller, that’s for sure. For that, I might offer Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor (1975), Fred Schepisi’s oft-overlooked The Russia House (1990) or Spielberg’s recent Bridge of Spies. Mind you, it’s not much of a romance either!
‘Tamarind has a lot to say then, but too little to show for itself, once we set-aside the lush production. The stakes are low and any jeopardy, paper-thin.
Trouble is, I like hearing what it’s saying and that’s enough to lift it above the herd.
But only just…
Sverdlov: I belong to a great country and a great socialist movement which one day will be accepted by the whole world.
Farrow: God forbid.
Sverdlov: How could He, if He doesn’t exist?