The Tamarind Seed

Director: Blake Edwards  
Julie Andrews, Omar Sharif, Anthony Quayle

Being the proprietor of a movie review web site, you can bet that often when I am not watching a movie, I surf around the Internet to look at many different movie review web sites. Sometimes it's for my own pleasure, to read about the opinions of a movie I have just watched and that I'm curious to see if there are other people who share my same opinion on the movie in question. Sometimes it's for research purposes for my web site; there are times when I stumble across an unknown movie that piques my interest and I want to see if there's a chance I might enjoy it or find it has enough ammunition to write a full-length scathing review. Anyway, for whatever purposes I go to movie review web sites, I see a lot of them. I've noticed that a significant number of movie review web sites limit themselves to reviewing just one particular movie genre. I don't have a problem with a web site that just reviews action movies or horror movies - some of those sites I have found have some valuable information in them. But more often than not I follow the old saying, "Variety is the spice of life." Maybe sticking to unknown movies may be kind of a limitation to some, but it still leaves me enough room to review all kinds of movies, not just action or horror. Reviewing a wide range of genres not only keeps movie watching fresh for me, but gives me a constant feeling of challenge when I move from one movie to another. If I weren't reviewing movies, you can bet that I would try to get some kind of job in the movie industry. And it would be some job that gives me constant variety and challenge. If I were a screenwriter, my scripts would cover all different genres. And if I were a director, I think I would be equally comfortable directing a different kind of genre movie each time.

At the same time, however, I do look at the movie industry with a mostly realistic viewpoint. I do realize that when it comes to the creative part of the motion picture industry, the people there that are able to tackle different genres with each new work assignment are pretty rare. You usually have to find a niche, something that you are very good at doing, and you usually stick with doing the same old thing for most of your career, if not all. For example, take movie director Alfred Hitchcock. The vast majority of his movies were thrillers. And then there is movie director Blake Edwards. You've probably heard of him at one point or another. What do you immediately think when you hear the name "Blake Edwards"? I am pretty sure that what first pops into your mind are the comedies he made. There are the Pink Panther movies, of course, but there are also classics like Breakfast At Tiffany's and 10. But what you may not know is that Edwards was associated with some serious projects as well. There was the Peter Gunn TV series, and he directed some serious-minded motion pictures as well, including The Tamarind Seed. You might wonder how someone associated with comedies got associated with such a movie, so I'll give you a brief explanation. In the early 1970s, Edwards' career was in kind of a crisis. Several years earlier he had signed on to direct and co-write Darling Lili, but he had limited creative input due to the great interference by the studio (which insisted, among other things, that Edwards make the movie a musical.) The movie went wildly over budget and got scathing reviews when it was released. Perhaps because of the headaches he got from making the movie, Edwards' next two movies were more modest enterprises. There was the western Wild Rovers, and the murder mystery The Carey Treatment. Both were good films (Wild Rovers is extremely underrated, and I'll review it one day), but both were box office flops.

During my research, I was unable to uncover how Edwards got involved with his next movie, The Tamarind Seed, which he scripted as well as directed. But I can understand why he might have thought he would make a comeback with the movie. His screenplay was based on a novel by acclaimed thriller novelist Evelyn Anthony, for one thing. Also, the stars of the movie were the The Tamarind Seedstill-hot Julie Andrews (his wife in real life) and the popular Omar Sharif. As it turned out, a lot of people thought Edwards had a hit on his hands; MAD Magazine, for one thing, pounced on the movie immediately after it started its theatrical release and published a parody. But to the embarrassment of MAD Magazine - and everyone connected with the movie - The Tamarind Seed proved to be a box office flop, and was quickly forgotten. To this day, it remains a pretty obscure movie, seldom seen on television and until recently hard to find on home video despite the two big stars in its cast. In fact, I came across it quite by accident, with no real previous knowledge about it. Needless to say, I thought it would fit nicely on my web site. In the movie, Julie Andrews (Mary Poppins) plays Judith Farrow, a British woman who works as an assistant to a minister in the British Home Office. At the beginning of the movie, she has recently broken up with the love of her life, and in an attempt to get her mind off the pain, she takes a trip to Barbados. Not long after arriving there, she meets a charming Russian man named Feodor Sverdlov (Sharif, Doctor Zhivago). The two hit it off, and spend a lot of time together enjoying the other's company. But Feodor works for the Russian military in his base location of Paris, and Feodor has told his superior officers that he is hoping to recruit Judith to work as a spy for the Russians, though he assures Judith that his feelings for her are genuine. As it turns out, British intelligence, lead by a man named Jack Loder (Quayle, The Fall Of The Roman Empire), knows all about Feodor, and they suspect that Feodor is just using Judith. But they do not stop Judith from seeing Feodor, since they feel she will help them uncover valuable information from the Russians.

Although you can see from the plot description of The Tamarind Seed that the central story involves spying, the main focus of the movie isn't on espionage (though there is certainly a respectable amount of it.) If you have guessed that the movie is more concerned with the characters of Judith and Feodor because of the "A" list actors who are playing them, you are correct. And if you ask me, that was a wise decision for writer/director Edwards, because the scenes involving Judith and Feodor and their interactions are both the best and strongest in the entire film. Part of that comes from the fact that Andrews and Sharif really get to show their considerable acting range. Andrews starts by making her character a little reluctant - understandable, because it's eventually revealed how she's been hurt in the past. As the film progresses, Andrews starts to inject a little courage as her character builds confidence, but wisely never makes her a superwoman - we see she's under pressure and is carefully thinking about every decision she makes. On the other hand, Sharif gives his character plenty of confidence from the start, but is careful to make his character palatable to the audience. Although his character is interested in Judith and wants to make a relationship between the two, he doesn't lay on the charm in a thick manner. He's patient, understanding, and comes across as a very likable man, and we can see why the relationship recovering Judith falls for his charms. (Though if he really likes Judith, or is just using her, remains a question that stays in our minds until the end of the movie, and Sharif cleverly plays the character so that there is evidence for each theory.)

Even better is when both Andrews and Sharif are on the screen, interacting with each other. When this happens, the movie has what many other movies involving romances are lacking - chemistry. Interestingly, writer/director Edwards almost never goes for the easy way to depict chemistry; the first real passionate kiss between Judith and Feodor doesn't happen until three-quarters of the way through, and later, in the movie's one and only bedroom sequence, it only shows the lovers after sex - and only very briefly. Otherwise, Edwards' building of chemistry comes from the two characters involved in various conversations with each other. That may sound boring, but surprisingly it isn't; there is a genuine spark between the two actors when they are engaged in various kinds of talk, enough that you could almost believe that they were interested in each other in real life. But it's not just because of the good rapport between the actors that we in the audience are interested in their characters. Edwards also wrote these characters to be interesting people. It would be so easy to make Judith and Feodor stupid characters, but Edwards makes them smart characters. While Judith is attracted to Feodor almost right from the start, she never forgets that her job is with the British Home Office, so she does wonder early on if Feodor might be using her. Feodor, on the other hand, lets Judith know early on that he has an estranged wife back home in Russia, telling her that he doesn't want to hide secrets from her. In fact, later on he tells her that the only way he is able to keep seeing her back in Europe is that he has told his superiors that he's trying to get classified information from her. These characters are not perfect - for instance, Judith finds her getting involved with the married Feodor despite the fact that her last relationship was also with a married man and it ended badly - but their flaws are presented in a way that we can still identify with and keep our sympathies with these characters.

Although most of The Tamarind Seed is focused on the building and evolving relationship between Judith and Feodor, that doesn't mean that the movie is lacking in other positive features. It may be Andrews and Sharif's movie, but the supporting British cast (including Anthony Quayle and Daniel O'Herlihy) do a professional job despite not getting a huge amount of screen time. Another pleasant surprise was with the movie's portrayal of spying. Unlike many other spy movies, The Tamarind Seed gives a pretty realistic portrayal of espionage. It shows that more often than not it's a lot of hard and lengthy work that's far from exciting, and that sometimes participants die in pretty harsh ways. Not exactly the glitz and glamor found in James Bond movies. Actually, the movie does have a few (indirect) ties to the James Bond movies. Music composer John Barry (Monte Walsh), who scored several James Bond movies, contributes a music score here that, while not as grand as his Bond scores, does not drown out the more human story in this movie. Also, title designer Maurice Binder (Rustlers' Rhapsody) provides an opening credits sequence that strongly resembles those he constructed for the James Bond movies he worked on, and it's kind of out of place with the seriousness of the rest of the movie. But that's a minor flaw. If there is any real flaw to be found in The Tamarind Seed, it's that at a 123 minute running length, it's a little long. Actually, every scene in the movie does seem to provide a purpose, from fleshing out the characters to advancing the plot. So instead of chopping out entire scenes, I think Edwards could have slightly shortened a number of scenes. But as it is, The Tamarind Seed still remains an effective movie, giving the audience human characters in a more realistic world than you usually get in movies.

(Posted July 14, 2014)

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See also: Breezy, Cheyenne Warrior, My First Mister