Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, Contributors, Essays, Film Reviews

A Community of Two: Blake Edwards’s ‘The Tamarind Seed’

[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world…
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
—Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach

More than one person, myself included, was not too terrifically turned on by the prospect of The Tamarind Seed. Despite Blake Edwards’s modest rep as a quirkily competent director, and memories of his refreshingly adult Peter Gunn television series in the late Fifties, the notion of Julie Andrews and Omar Sharif let loose in an environment “where love grows and passion flowers” (to quote the early ads) did not set my critical—or indeed, any other—pulses racing in anticipation. Mary Poppins and Dr. Zhivago, as one Movietone News writer aptly dubbed them, might make magical music for Middle America, but they aren’t the couple that comes most readily to mind in the context of passionate, grownup love. In fact, I fear I had come to cast the two as top-of-the-line Barbie and Kenny doll stars: handsomely groomed and coiffured, offending no one (and even enchanting some) with their unrelieved attractiveness, and wholesomely bereft of bothersome genitalia.

Even when I got the word that the love story was set within the spy-thriller framework, I wasn’t much more sanguine about The Tamarind Seed. I’ve about had my fill of the institutionalized world-weariness of this venerable genre. Like the cop flick, the international spy drama has come to wallow in unearned cynicism, automatic angst. Current events haven’t helped this drift towards self-congratulatory recognition of corruption here, there, and everywhere. Having been conditioned to accept it as our native element, we are all too easily and undiscriminatingly immersed in a cinematic environment in which every landmark is subject to change without notice, depending upon the ebb and flow of political and/or ideological expediency. With poleaxed complacency, we watch individuals, relationships, ethics suffer such swift sea-changes that nothing is certain, save the expectation that the ground under one’s feet will be shifting again at any moment.

Characteristically, the last bastion of stability and decency resides in the community of two, lovers whose loyalty and commitment to each other may momentarily transcend—but is ultimately and perfunctorily done in by—Cold War games. The games themselves have grown overly familiar and predictably nihilistic: means are expended to achieve ends that possess reality only to those unknown bookkeepers who keep track of the debits and assets of international espionage. When a master like Hitchcock gets hold of the genre, as in Topaz, all of the clichés go through a reverse process of evolution so that finally they arrive at their initial state of startling newness and freshness. When all the heat and hue of human passions that constituted Hitchcock’s version of the Cuban missile crisis were finally reduced to the cold black and white of newspaper headlines that some dolt-in-the-street carelessly scanned and then just as carelessly discarded, one physically felt the point: no mourners for these Cold War casualties, and no monuments either—just eminently perishable newsprint. The system kills—by moral attrition, or violently, physically—but always the abstraction of international security is best preserved by a terrible and wasteful expenditure of human resources. By debasing the moral coinage that allows men and women to deal with one another with even minimal trust or affection, the world is made safe for…well, not people, but…something.

OK. Between the shopworn genre, then, and Andrews and Sharif, I wasn’t clamoring to be the first in line when The Tamarind Seed opened. I should have been. For The Tamarind Seed, like Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, turns a Good Will genre into the genuine article, shifts and reshapes our thinking and feeling and seeing. And that new perception of reality is not just four-walled within a theater or the confines of a frame of film, but makes its way—or should—into the larger, less defined, and thus less understandable, territory of our lives.

The fabric of Blake Edwards’s film cannot be faulted in its seamless containment of a consistently complicated and interwoven tale of pervasive duplicity. In the center of that web is caught a real true love affair—perhaps the first since Klute that doesn’t tax credulity or patience. Yes, by now you must have guessed that Edwards has managed somehow—and the somehow would be interesting to research—to elicit entirely superb performances from Andrews and Sharif. Andrews is Edwards’s wife, and perhaps that degree of directorial intimacy might partially explain the extraordinary use of Andrews’s very limitations to create a complex and believable woman in The Tamarind Seed. Sharif, forgettable since Lawrence of Arabia, is also directed in such a way that what were mere tics and traits of a handsome mannequin metamorphose into the richness and depth of a wholly lived-in character. The Tamarind Seed is not “an old-fashioned three-handkerchief weeper” (as initially reported by one Seattle critic)—a description that (unintentionally, the critic later acknowledged) suggests soggy shades of Imitation of Life and Madame X. The only thing that’s old-fashioned about the relationship between Sharif and Andrews is that it’s reminiscent of the palpable, civilized intimacy of screen couples like Bogart and Bacall, Bogart and Bergman, Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins/Kay Francis (Trouble in Paradise), Marshall and Dietrich (Angel)—intimacy that includes bed but isn’t announced and defined by boudoir action alone. The worlds of spying and loving are not discrete in The Tamarind Seed—one is simply the adversary of the other. The difficulties of getting and giving love are reflected in, magnified by, the relationships between nations and their representatives, while what passes between men and women—at carnal cross-purposes or not—almost immediately alters the focus of ubiquitous intelligence networks. Although The Tamarind Seed operates unbeatably as a suspense film, it strikes me that the world of international intrigue, betrayal, and counter-betrayal works as an exceedingly apt objective correlative of the atmosphere in which men and women ordinarily strive to achieve some kind of mutually satisfactory rapprochement. Masks are masks, whether worn in the service of national or personal security and self-aggrandizement.

The credits of The Tamarind Seed begin with a shot that pulls out of the depths of a blue eye (Andrews’s) and are then laid on over a background of hottest red, against which silhouettes of Sharif and Andrews appear. First, Sharif’s head in left of frame, Andrews on the right (significantly lit in blue—but more of that in a moment); then shreds of smoke in an empty frame, followed by a full-face of Andrews, behind whom a car falls over a cliff and explodes in flames; Sharif exhaling clouds of cigarette smoke; Andrews and Sharif meeting, passing, working, exchanging glances—nearly, but never quite, making contact.

These images create a kind of thematic overture to the film, in coloration and in subject. Red and blue are used visually and verbally throughout The Tamarind Seed to index, and frequently to pun upon, political and personal associations and obsessions. Red, in Andrews’s mind, is bound up with fear of fire; it is her husband who plunges over that cliff to a fiery death, and by extension, red has become for her the color of love, passion, emotions stigmatized by associations of pain and loss. Sharif, as the man who tries to warm her back into love and life, is doubly dyed in red because of being a high-level Russian official. The smoke-filled red of the sequence also suggests the hellish quality of the political environment in which they move uncertainly and dangerously towards personal salvation. Blue is the color of Andrews’s innate coolness and self-containment, as well as the exaggeration of those qualities in her locked-up and untouchable phase. She is “true blue” (an idiomatic expression she must jokingly define for Sharif) as a Britishwoman—something so untoward in their experience that her country’s agents don’t even count it as a possibility—and as Sharif’s reluctant lover and abettor in defection. But blue is as blue does: the code name for a highly placed British traitor is Blue, and said traitor persists in wearing an elegantly unobtrusive blue handkerchief in his pocket.

I don’t mean at all to imply that Edwards cutely plays around with one-to-one color symbolism. Color, like everything else in The Tamarind Seed, is used with high, sometimes humorous sophistication, as when Sharif asks Andrews why she doesn’t just turn Communist and go back to Russia with him, and she, suffused by red-filtered light in a nightclub, remarks that among other things she doesn’t look good in red. Sharif phones his soon-to-be arrested secretary at the Russian consulate and the latter is seen in a room ruddily lit. Sure he’s a “Red”, but he’s also about to get buried in the hell of a KGB interrogation headquarters. Andrews, desperately trying to warn Sharif of his own danger, uses a bright red phone in a room of scarlet decor, while the roseate rooms where the couple lunch or dance participate in, reflect the growing warmth of their mutual regard, the sensuality aroused by their proximity.

The red of the credits sequence dissolves into the sheen of outward-rushing sea. The massive drift of water away from and towards the beach destroys our sense of equilibrium, makes us wish for ground that remains stable; and still, satisfyingly, the camera moves us towards shore where Judith Farrow (Julie Andrews) is walking out her memories. This brief, unemphasized movement establishes the narrative and moral direction of the film: the lies and disguises of international double-dealing seem to erode and dissolve any reliable realities in the movie except that small island of mutual trust between Sharif and Andrews. We cling to that relationship even as our faith in its survival wanes. (It is no accident that The Tamarind Seed begins in an element of dizzying instability and ends in the haven of a valley bounded by mountains, a landscape of ageless and unchanging security.)

But Judith Farrow is haunted by images of impermanence and death. Again we witness the scarlet nightmare of the car that silently crashes over a cliff and bursts into flames. Other, obviously more recent memories—Judith asking her boss for a vacation, saying a strained goodbye to a man—are in lifeless black and white, as though nothing has touched her deeply since (because of?) that fiery plunge. Hard upon her flashbacks, and not immediately identifiable as a shift in point-of-view, comes a brief sequence that serves to clarify the remembered parting and the reason for it: The man and a woman, evidently his pregnant wife, are irritably preparing to go out. Momentarily alone, the wife ruefully examines her swollen figure in a dresser mirror, then focuses, as does the camera, on a phone’s blinking tight. To her, the significance of that blinking button is that her not-so-very-devoted husband is on another line, and indeed onto another woman: Judith Farrow. That light will blink again, much later, when events have moved and changed; the wife will act on an obsolete signal, eavesdrop, and thereby get hold of crucial information; and that information, carelessly passed on to just the wrong person, writes a death warrant for Judith’s new, real lover. A small thing, planted before the Sharif character has even been introduced—but the beginning of a series of interwoven motifs, the threads of which will form diverse, unimpeachably logical patterns to different observers, so that escape into fresh design comes to seem impossible.

Andrews sleeps in her scarlet nightmare; Sharif’s secretary hangs up his red phone and faces his “Red” arrest. And we cut to the icy-blue crystals of a chandelier, from which the camera zooms out to encompass a roomful of diplomatic types in attendance at an ambassadorial reception. We pick up Group Captain Paterson, Judith’s ex-lover (David Baron), and his wife (Celia Bannerman), just ending a polite conversation with another couple. That couple (Dan O’Herlihy and Sylvia Syms) start back up through the room, retracing the camera’s optical movement; the wife comments bitchily on the bastardliness of husbands in general, hers in particular. An attractive male comes out of the soft-focus telephoto distance beyond them, steps into focus, then passes out of frame almost through the lens. The wife turns to stare after him, inquires of his identity, finds out he “works with Jack Loder”—”That dreadful man!”—and we cut to Loder (Anthony Quayle), now in conversation with his good-looking aide (Bryan Marshall). In front of them, in extreme closeup, General Golitsyn’s toothily smiling face crosses the frame, pausing momentarily for our recognition. Loder immediately moves to extract another man from a group, and they go off in a corner to discuss the significance of Golitsyn’s (Oscar Homolka’s) frequent appearances without his righthand man, Colonel Sverdlov (Sharif). Is Sverdlov off on a job? Is he about to be axed? It bears looking into.

In one beautifully sustained and choreographed movement—there are only a couple of cuts—Edwards has introduced most of the principal players in the Byzantine drama that will seek to cast Andrews and Sharif, who have not yet even met, in roles ill-suited to their talent for loving, roles that would end in another version of the fiery death that already obsesses Judith Farrow. As the camera connects each of these players to the others, so do their lives, loves, and politics interconnect: not one of these guests at the party will fail to touch and alter the reality of our not-yet-lovers: the highly placed homosexual who is coincidentally a traitor; his discontented wife, who takes Loder’s aide to bed; Loder himself, whose work in intelligence has taught him to trust no one, believe nothing; General Golitsyn, who has already begun to implement Sverdlov’s fall from Party favor. Each will shift the pattern according to his perception and power; each will enmesh the rest in an ever-growing web of mutual distrust and suspicion.

Meanwhile, back in Barbados, the two who will be most affected by that web have finally met. Judith, twice burnt and twice wary, though charmed by the gently persuasive Sverdlov, is quite adamant about setting limits on their relationship—not out of coyness or indecision, but out of an instinct for survival. She is a casualty of the past. She opts for isolationism, a farewell to arms. But inadvertently, imperceptibly, she moves towards a new détente, mostly by means of frank and open negotiation. For she and Sverdlov talk, and the quality of their talk, their communication, is such that contact, involvement, and eventually love is inevitable. When was the last time you saw a movie in which a man and a woman exchanged more than pre- or postcoital pleasantries? One in which a man and a woman visibly set about the long and difficult business of knowing each other, of building with some care a relationship based not only on sexual attraction but on other affinities and amenities which friends, as well as lovers, may share? Because they are not immediately in bed, instantly intimate, they are free to nurture and enjoy the subtle pleasures of courtship and foreplay which contemporary, “liberated” films (and audiences) eschew. The authentic sensuality of publicly acceptable caresses and physical proximity—the touching of a hand or a cheek, dancing for the pleasure of another’s body and rhythm—this kind of sensuality can exist in and for itself, without necessarily culminating in anything more than the crumbling of territorial barriers, the privacy-preserving walls of self giving way to the reality of another identity.

In their peregrinations about the island, they discover the legend of the tamarind seed: A slave, condemned to be hanged from a tamarind tree, promised that the tree would vindicate him; ever after, the seeds from that tree were shaped like the head of a man. Judith believes the legend, and believes there are absolutes of right and wrong, that conscience exists and discriminates between evil and good. Sverdlov, in an argument that runs quite against the grain of what we (and Judith) perceive him to be, claims that man invents and reinvents concepts of right and wrong according to the prevailing winds of custom and expediency, and that what is a lie at one time may be truth at another. This is not just an abstract discussion about the nature of morality; it has to do with Judith’s past experiences in love, the reliability of their present rapport, and the world that has begun to infiltrate their island paradise.

For Loder has already roundtabled their liaison with his cohorts in the intelligence racket and named it out of his own frame of reference: Sverdlov is seducing a recruit, a recruit who has access to sensitive material in her work and in her contact with Group Captain Paterson. Even as we watch the couple on their way to find the legendary tamarind tree, an agent’s voice reports on the progress of their affair (“She hasn’t invited him into her bed yet,” etc.). The intrusion of this kind of reading, overlapping our own observation of the actual events, subtly alters our perception, drains away a little of our assurance that we really know what’s passing between Sverdlov and Farrow.

We have been drawn back to Loder’s less innocent world once to witness a mechanical coupling between the homosexual minister’s bitchy wife and Loder’s aide (who’d clearly prefer to go on watching Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent on TV). As she undresses with the unalluring air of this-is-what-we-came-for-so-let’s-get-on-with-it, he lets a little of his own cover slip as well and shares some gossip about Loder’s investigation of Judith Farrow, ex-mistress of (;roup Captain Paterson and now entangled with a Russian spy (“Nothing your husband won’t know about tomorrow”). Carnal and political knowledge—the sexual spasm, however perfunctory, twitches the tapestry of intrigue. For Margaret will flaunt that information in her husband’s face so as to apprise him of her sexual defection, and he will take it to Loder. In such a sordid conversational climate, Loder’s assessment of Judith as a “twice-damaged little plum” ripe for Sverdlov’s seduction possesses a terrible kind of authority. Fergus, the minister, has compromised his own wife: in his adherence to duty—or is it that he too is taking his share of sexual revenge? At the end of their interview, Fergus looks long and hard at a cigarette lighter inscribed “From Margaret with Love”—the instrument of his betrayal of his country (it contains a secret camera with which he microfilms high-level documents) and ultimately of his wife and family (his activity as a Communist agent threatens the secure ambassadorial future they rely on). That inscription is a cover, a cruel exploitation of the name of love. But by putting Loder onto his aide’s indiscretion and thereby effectively terminating his wife’s affair, he has ensured his own exposure. Sexual politics, like sex itself, can infect and kill.

Once Judith and Sverdlov leave Barbados and return to the homeground of the Loders and Golitsyns, the film’s momentum accelerates. And the momentum is clearly towards the dissolution of the relationship, their very lives. Again we are made to feel unsure ourselves: Sverdlov tells his superior he’s doing precisely what Loder tells Judith: seducing her as an agent. Yet he, Sverdlov, immediately tells her what he has said—because, he explains, it provides him with a legitimate excuse to go on seeing her. Judith is uncertain; we are uncertain. But like a stone standing fast against the current, their love firms and strengthens in adversity. It seems that center cannot hold for long against the claustrophobic pressure of constant surveillance, tapped phones, ever more ensnarled threads of individual and government duplicity and vested interests. Phones and planes dominate this latter part of the film; messages must be communicated swiftly before they become obsolete, before harm is done; locations must be changed to avoid discovery, even death. Judith’s sorry love affair with Paterson, like the others in the film, retains the power to betray, for it is his jealous wife who sets in motion the train of events that culminate with Judith’s baptism in fire, which seem to burn away all love and end her where she began.

But The Tamarind Seed is not on the side of fire and water—elements of change and impermanence. From the seemingly meaningless intricacies of the maze in which political and sexual strategy are one, so that no personal reality mitigates against ideological abstractions, a new design does emerge and dominate: individual integrity and decency united to make a community of two, a miniature civilization which may be all we’ve got, all we want, maybe even all we need.

Screenplay and direction: Blake Edwards, after the novel by Evelyn Anthony. Cinematography: Freddie Young. Editing: Ernest Walter. Music: John Barry. Production: Ken Wales.
The Players: Omar Sharif, Julie Andrews, Anthony Quayle, Daniel O’Herlihy, Sylvia Sims, Oscar Homolka, Bryan Marshall, David Baron, Celia Bannerman, George Mikel, Sharon Duce, Constantin de Goguel.

© 1974 Kathleen Murphy