Part 1 of 2
TB: For our fifth and final week on British crime flicks, we are looking at the 1974 movie THE TAMARIND SEED. Star Julie Andrews had been off screen for four years, and this was heralded as a comeback of sorts. She would take a longer break after this, and have another comeback in 1979 with 10. These films, of course, were written and directed by Andrews’ husband Blake Edwards. If you haven’t seen THE TAMARIND SEED, it should be said upfront that her character Judith Farrow isn’t very much like Mary Poppins or Maria Von Trapp. Though Andrews is still playing a very likable woman in this cold war espionage drama.
JL: I have not read Evelyn Anthony’s book that this was adapted from, but I suspect some alterations were done to make it a better vehicle for Andrews, especially since Edwards was behind the camera and audiences were less enthusiastic for her vamp role in DARLING LILI than they were to the more wholesome Poppins and Von Trapp. However I also remember reading a comment of hers stating that she got pretty frustrated by this time with so many thinking she sported daisies “down under,” so this is why her later roles tended to be more along the lines of the popular Jane Fondas and Julie Christies of the period and, at least once, she dared to go topless.
JL: Julie Andrews wasn’t doing much on the big screen during the seventies, though she stayed active on the small screen, most notably with her participation in opening Walt Disney World in Florida and twice singing with the Muppets. Therefore a film appearance like this was a rare treat for this era. As the credits roll, a close-up of her face is shown first, before Omar Sharif, to emphasize her being away too long.
Julie Andrews & Omar Sharif
TB: What do you think about the character she’s playing? And about the characer Sharif is playing?
JL: The character of Judith Farrow, British Home Office assistant, had an affair with a married Captain Richard Patterson (David Baron)…and we are lead to believe that it started after her husband died, but are we really that sure? After all, she admitted she wasn’t in love with him before he was consumed in a fiery car crash over a cliff. Yet we need this storyline because she later seeks Patterson for help and this prompts the wife (Carol Bannerman) to eavesdrop on their phone call. Also we need to understand the “why” of a Julie Andrews “type” allowing Omar’s married Feodor Sverdlov to both woo her and admit he is a womanizer away from his wife.
TB: Omar Sharif exudes charisma, doesn’t he! He and Andrews share a palpable chemistry. I’d read somewhere that he often had affairs with his leading ladies. But because Andrews’ husband is in charge and continually present, I would expect that Sharif and Andrews did not carry on once the camera stopped rolling. So I think that adds to the romantic tension here, especially since Feodor does want to take Judith to bed and the consummation of the characters’ relationship is considerably delayed (until the third act of the movie).
JL: To his credit, Feodor does insist that Judith is different than the others and, like George Lazenby’s Bond with Diana Rigg (ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE), he seems ready to settle down and be faithful for a change. This keeps Omar on his proper Zhivago footing by not only having him play a Russian who doesn’t get along with his government but also one who is ready to stay focused on just one Lara.
Comparisons with other films
TB: Before I re-watched the film, you told me that you thought it reminded you of CHARADE. So let’s go over some comparisons with CHARADE. Also the Bond films from the 60s and early 70s, since I think it shares similarities with those productions as well.
JL: Stanley Donen’s CHARADE, made a decade earlier, was very Hitch-inspired and this film invites plenty of comparison. For me, the comparisons are more about the overall story arch of a romantic pair in which the woman isn’t completely sure of her man’s honesty at first and the overall chemistry of the pair. Plus Julie Andrews often competed for the same roles as Audrey Hepburn (most obviously, MY FAIR LADY) since both actresses have a certain refinement and are showcased in stylish wardrobes.
TB: Yes, I must interject briefly. We are told in the opening credit sequence that the wardrobe for this movie is provided by Dior. And the leads are very stylishly presented in this picture. So are most of the supporting players. What about the casting of Andrews and Sharif? Obviously Andrews could have had her choice of any leading man for this film.
JL: Key difference here are the ages: Julie is 37 here (filming started in May 1973) while Omar Sharif was only three and a half years older, unlike Audrey being 33 and co-star Cary Grant turning 59 in 1962-63. Then again, Omar’s hair is quite gray here, perhaps done on purpose.
TB: I’d like to mention the on-location filming, which I think gives this film something extra. In a way, the film sort of functions as a glossy travelogue. The Bond films move much more quickly without a lot of rumination about the surroundings. But the pace of this story is a bit more leisure, so there’s time to linger on the locales a bit more, which I love.
JL: Even without as much on-your-seat’s-edge 007 suspense, we get a lot of 007-ish locales: Paris, London, Barbados especially… also some hilly country posing as Canada. Cinematographer Freddie Young had an impressive career stretching back to the twenties with a special emphasis on action films from THE 49TH PARALLEL, Walt Disney’s TREASURE ISLAND, MGM’s first CinemaScope swashbucklers, one 007 outing (YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE) as well as two key David Lean epics: LAWRENCE OF ARABIA with an Arab Omar Sharif and DR. ZHIVAGO with a Russian Omar Sharif like Feodor here.
TB: Tomorrow JLewis and I continue our conversation about THE TAMARIND SEED. We discuss the cinematography a bit, and we also focus on the film’s superb supporting players. Please be sure to join us…
Part 2 of 2
TB: Okay, when we left off yesterday, we were going over the cinematography. Anything else you’d like to add about that?
JL: Well, with cinematographer Freddie Young, we are seeing a master at the peak of his career with everybody in flawless focus, great panoramas of blistering clouds in the horizons and intricate shots of people through windows… indicating that everybody here is constantly being watched. Regardless of how pretty the landscape and how far away you think you are from your troubles, you are never alone.
TB: I thought the film really came alive during the petrol bomb sequence. I liked how the Russian men were carrying a crate of beer bottles, with the explosives cleverly concealed. And I liked the small boat exploding as one of them tried to get away. That section was a nail biter. And it wouldn’t have been as good as it was without Young’s visual sense of how the action should be photographed. And despite the pandemonium that ensues, we still have Andrews’ character at the center of it. She’s a survivor.
JL: It is interesting to note that Judith is the one key character not smoking, perhaps because she is not so nervous about having so much to hide. Of course, we have the usual cigarette lighters that are not really cigarette lighters.
TB: Oh, but we don’t want to spoil too much about the cigarette lighter used by Stephenson (Dan O’Herlihy). Let’s discuss O’Herlihy’s character and the subplot with his wife (Sylvia Syms). Syms had previously played this type of material in VICTIM, albeit differently.
JL: Dan O’Herlihy’s Fergus Stephenson is a very important character here since he is doing the opposite of Feodor, a Brit establishing contact with the communists and, therefore, becomes a key asset for Feodor when he and Judith confront Jack Loder (Anthony Quayle), the Brit Intelligence officer. In addition to being a commie, he is also accused by his wife Margaret for being gay… and he’s not exactly denying it either. However we never see him do anything on screen. But she needs an excuse to carry on an affair with George MacLeod (Bryan Marshall) who is an assistant to Jack and making good use of her pillow talk to learn more about her husband.
TB: At times I found the Stephensons to be more interesting than our main couple, Judith and Feodor. While Judith and Feodor are struggling to trust each other in the early phases of a relationship, the Stephensons are struggling to trust each other in the later phases of a relationship. And I think the Stephensons have much more baggage.
JL: This subplot, for me, felt rather dated for two key reasons. First, many gay men (not so much lesbians) were canned from government jobs in the 1950s in particular because they were widely believed to be the ones most guilty of communist influenced black mail.
TB: Yes. I haven’t read the source material, but I wondered if the book had been written much earlier, regardless of when it was published. Because it did seem to suggest some narrow views about homosexuals being communists. Though I did not exactly think Mr. Stephenson was as sexually active as his wife. And as we saw in the film, her dalliances compromised them more than his did.
JL: Women were frequently suspecting their husbands and male lovers were gay simply because they weren’t good at “performance”. This even became a joke with slang terms and the nearly always used F-word in such vintage comedies and dramas made just before THE TAMARIND SEED such as LOVERS AND OTHER STRANGERS. We look back at these films as time capsules of “the way we were” and remember that, even as late as 1973-74. homosexuality was only just starting to get removed from medical journals as a “disease.”
TB: Thoughts about Syms as an actress?
JL: She is actually brilliant in her small role and deserved her British Oscar. I had temporarily forgotten her similar role in VICTIM, that being a more sympathetic film. This may explain why she plays her character as only mildly upset about him being gay (since they still had three children now grown up and she is getting what she wants with George) but is far more upset about him being a traitor to their country. This very emotional acting scene by her pulls all the stops.
TB: I see Mrs. Stephenson as a Lady MacBeth, and her husband obviously as MacBeth. And I do think that Syms and O’Herlihy nailed it. I especially love the scene after she learns he’s a traitor. She’s had her big outburst in the bedroom. But now she’s had time to think. And she’s calmer, cooler. She goes into the den to tell him she’s not going to let him compromise their chances of being put in charge of an embassy. She’s very cold-blooded at this point and says she’s calling the shots. Though of course they will work together. This is followed by scenes with them in a car later on, where she learns more about how he communicates with the Russians. So ironically, the Stephensons become more of a team, more solidified in their corruption.
JL: Yes, I found the Stephensons far more engrossing than the Patersons and those two friends of Feodor, she not knowing any Russian apart from curse words even though they are needed to move the plots along. Although I think the movie did cut down their importance from the book in order to prevent the movie from getting too long. For example, I did not understand all of the fainting over pregnancy business.
TB: Well obviously the fainting scene was a plot device, so Mrs. Stephenson could find out that her husband’s identity as a traitor may soon be revealed by Feodor. Mrs. Paterson had to innocently pass that nugget of info on to Mrs. Stephenson. What I realized about these scenes is that are stretches of the narrative where Judith and Feodor are off screen, and the supporting cast takes over and they propel the action forward. In that regard, it’s a very well-balanced movie where everyone in the cast has something important to do, to contribute to the overall arc of the story. I have a feeling Edwards improved on the novel in these specific areas. What we get in this movie is really a bunch of characters that are playing one big game with each another.
Oskar Homolka as the Russian general
JL: Oskar Homolka, who plays General Golitsyn, was a great actor who deserves mentioning here. Did a bit of homework on him. I now finally recognize him for his boisterous role as Uncle Chris in I REMEMBER MAMA and he often played “heavies”. He is uber confident in everything he does on screen.
TB: Yes, I love the old Russian general and the stooges he places in the Paris office, because that adds intrigue to the movie. And Homolka is very good in what is basically an extended cameo. Let’s go over a few other tidbits…like thoughts on the cold war, on espionage in the mid-70s, superpower relations, etc.
JL: This was released at a time when there was some gradual thawing of the Cold War despite Vietnam still factoring, although the situation would increase in intensity by the early 1980s again. As a result, I felt that this movie might have worked a bit better had it been set in an earlier time period, if just a decade earlier like FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, rather than the seventies. Yet it still seems somewhat realistic in part.
What are tamarind seeds?
TB: What did you think about the title and what it means?
JL: The tamarind seed is one the two leads discover in a museum. Long ago in Barbados, a slave was hung on a tree and seeds shaped like a face confirmed his post-death innocence. A seed pops up in an envelope twice in this movie to confirm Feodor’s honesty with Judith. This includes his comments just before a major explosion when he says there is a “good omen ahead” when the music playing on the radio matches the same “we will swoon the night away” they danced to earlier. Of course, they reappear at a key moment in the finale.
TB: I think the story of the tamarind seed is really a comment on Judith’s belief system. A few times Feodor gently mocks her, telling her they won’t find a tamarind tree when they go searching for one. But of course they do, or else she wouldn’t have received those seeds. Like seeds of truth. Also, since Edwards adapted the book and wrote the screenplay, and since he knew his leading lady better than anyone, I think some of Feodor’s dialogue were his own thoughts about his wife, her beliefs, and her overall sincerity. In that regard, some of the movie seems like a rumination on the Andrews-Edwards partnership.
TB: Anything else you’d like to discuss?
JL: Just a few other “seeds” of interest…All of the talk of colors is interesting. “Red” obviously suggests “the party” and I particularly like the rather close (if throwaway and possibly unintentional) shot of bright red luggage in an airport scene on the conveyor belt as Feodor stages a careful transfer of planes. There are discussions about fashions that include red ties being taboo in the west during certain time frames and not in others and a Russian empress who loved pink so much that she refused to allow other women to wear it. “True blue” is Judy’s sense of British loyalty. In his conversation with Jack Loder, Feodore glances at Judith as he discusses another spy who is code named “blue”, somehow relating the color to her. Jack responds “You give us blue and we will see you safe and snug for the rest of your life.”
TB: Which of course is what happens.
JL: One particularly enjoyable scene that makes little sense to me but is still enjoyable involves Judith talking to Jack at a zoo and a tiger pacing a very confining cage. Obviously this is an important scene because the editors splice it right after the elevator “cage” that Feodor departs with his secret information. I guess one point made here is that he too is trapped in a cage, but why a tiger as a symbol? Is this supposed to suggest how Judith views him since they hadn’t (at this point) had sex yet?
When they finally do, she has her repeating dream of her husband’s death in a fiery car. He insists it is just a nightmare as he calms her under the covers. He is very honest with her…so should she stop dreaming it? After all, she didn’t love her husband in the same way as Feodor.
TB: I interpreted it to mean that would be the last time she had that dream. Her recurring nightmare was now over. The final scene, where they reunite in Canada, leaves little doubt that they are on track and will continue this relationship, despite living in two separate countries.
THE TAMARIND SEED may currently be viewed on YouTube.