“Not by ignoring evil does one overcome it, but by going to meet it.”
Director Ronald Neame also had a hand in the screenplay of this nifty Noir thriller starring a pair of actors I’ve long numbered among my many favorites. Trevor Howard and Herbert Lom. Archeologist Howard will find himself among a gang of cutthroat gun runners in post WW2 Tunisia when he’s called in to catalogue a treasure trove of Napoleonic artifacts to be sent back to a British museum. Among them is the movie’s title. A large golden salamander with the highlighted quote above etched into the figures base. It’s a quote that will prey heavily upon Howard following his arrival at a small village along the Tunisian coast line.
Howard will be halted in a blinding thunderstorm outside the village on the night of his arrival. A landslide has washed the road out while at the same time toppling a large transport truck, It’s cargo busted open and visible in the flashes of sporadic lightening. Handguns strewn about what’s left of the roadway. Preferring to remain unseen, Howard will fade into the brush when Lom and Jacques Sernas show up to survey the damage. Making his way to the village by foot, Howard will arrive at the hotel he is to stay at.
It’s here that he’ll find himself the center of attraction in the bar where he’ll meet the house piano player/barfly, Wilfrid Hyde-White, as well as Lom and Sernas who have returned from the landslide. From the outset Lom is shifty and wants to know if the stranger witnessed anything on the road leading to the village. Howard isn’t admitting to anything while sharing a drink with the trio and is more than happy to make the acquaintance of the innkeeper, Anouk Aimee. Billed here above the title next to Howard as simply, Anouk.
Howard will next meet the wealthy Walter Rilla who has the antiquities in storage and harbors a secret that will connect all our participants to the guns as the plot plays itself out. While Howard and Anouk are embarking on a love affair, that line about “going to meet it” continues to haunt him. First he’ll confront Sernas offering him a way out back to France before taking his story to the local police station where Miles Malleson is the officer in charge. All seems fine until Lom learns of Sernas’ plans to quietly leave the village and the underground operation which we know is going to result in Lom’s murdering the young man to keep all loose ends tied.
In a harrowing underwater scene while Howard and Anouk are enjoying a swim on the beachfront, Howard finds the body which will result in him taking his story to the always delightful Malleson. The plot will only run deeper when the long arm of the wealthy Rilla proves to have most everyone under his control. With the wheels of justice moving far to slow for Howard’s liking he too will sign his own death warrant by attempting to go the British Consulant and report what he believes to be an intricate gun running operation coupled with Lom’s murderous tendencies.
By this point in the film there’s still a solid half hour to go featuring a thrilling chase scene involving Howard, Lom and Anouk complimented by Hyde-White as well as a great twist of fate that will prove fatal to our gang of cutthroats at the conclusion of this 97 minute thriller filmed at Pinewood with on location second unit work captured on camera in Tunsia.
Long overdue to finally see this black and white edge of your seat thriller, this viewing completes a five pack of superior British Noir thrillers put together in a box set from Kino Lorber. The other titles in the set have all been featured previously here at Mike’s Take. Each one worthy of your time. Along with Salamander, the other Noir’s in the set are as follows, The Assassin, Snowbound, They Met in the Dark and The October Man.
At this point in time, Howard, was still a leading man who would morph into the character actor I knew him as when first discovering his many performances in films like Von Ryan’s Express, Father Goose and even Superman. Then came his earlier work that endeared him to me all the more. Movies like Brief Encounter, The Third Man and Cockleshell Heroes. As for my other favorite in Salamander, Mr. Lom, he should need absolutely no introductions to a youngster growing up in the 1970’s. One who could never see and discover enough movies. Quite simply, Herbert Lom, is Chief Inspector Dreyfus. But of course I’d soon learn that Lom was more than the lunatic Chief out to rid the world of Clouseau. Lom’s career dated back to the 1940’s and long before the Pink Panther films he had impressed in a number of roles in films ranging from what might be the greatest black comedy of all, The Ladykillers to Spartacus. From Hell Drivers to playing Napoleon in War and Peace.
Salamander’s director Ronald Neame would find his greatest box office success with the best of the 1970’s disaster epics, The Poseidon Adventure. He’d even direct Lom thirty years following this Noir thriller in the 1980 cult favorite Hopscotch and work with Howard once again in 1986’s Foreign Body. More than a director, Neame would also work on many of David Lean’s early works. He served as a cinematographer on Blithe Spirit, scored producer credits on Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, and added to those accomplishments scored writing credits on Lean’s This Happy Breed, and again on Blithe Spirit and Great Expectations.
For a fine trio of pros and a very attractive Anouk, do your best to catch up with this one if at all possible. Hell, just grab that box set, it’s worth the investment.