DVD Review: Timbuktu

The MGM Limited Edition Collection re-releases a Jacques Tourneur action thriller that was kind of ahead of its time.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani


Goodness. The hits keep coming don't they?

Well, not that Jacques Tourneur's 1958 action film Timbuktu is a “hit,” necessarily. I would be surprised if many people – ever hardcore cineastes – have seen the film. But this film, like most of the films currently being put into the ingenious print-on-demand DVD market, is certainly notable in its way. The MGM Limited Edition Collection, which has been following the Warner Archive print-on-demand model, has recently flooded their library with such titles, and we've been reviewing some of them here on CraveOnline. But onto Timbuktu.

Jacques Tourneur is a name you may recognize. He is probably most notable for his mannered horror classics Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and Curse of the Demon (1957). He also directed the well-regarded Robert Mitchum noir Out of the Past (1947). But his career is mostly loaded with western action flicks and exotic adventure cheapies that typically stand above their contemporaries. Many of these films are hard to find, but prove to be well made and thrilling, if not necessarily smart or clever. Timbuktu falls squarely into this category. It's comforting to know that semi-notable, somewhat forgettable, and perfectly pleasing action schlock has been around for as long as it has.

Timbuktu takes place, yes, in The Congo in 1940, and involves a stuffed shirt Colonel in the French Foreign Legion named Charles Dufort (George Dolenz, Micky's father). He has been called to Timbuktu to rescue a local holy man from a band of wicked brigands, who would use his influence to start a Muslim uprising, and take over all of Africa. This is the earliest film I have seen that actually bothers to make mention of Islam. Although all the supporting actors pronounce the word “Allah” as if they're saying “Allen.” Dufort has brought along his disapproving wife Natalie (Yvonne De Carlo, whom I know mainly as Lily Munster) and she rightfully complains that her husband is a workaholic. There are a few scenes of Natalie having casual chats with her perky friend Marcia Henderson, and these scenes feel human and grounded in a film of otherwise widespread action chintziness.

The main character of the film, though, is the irascible gentleman criminal Mike Conway, played by the beefy and sexually creepy Victor Mature. There's no gentle way of putting this, so I'll be crass: Victor Mature, in this film, looks like a child molester. Seriously. He's covered with an unnerving patina of grease, and seems to be flirtatiously leering at everyone he talks to. His character Conway is, I suppose, supposed to resemble Rick from Casablanca or Harry Lime from The Third Man, as he is up to no good (he is running weapons to the Tuareg rebels, right under the nose of Dufort), but he is depicted as hunky and charming. Partway through the film, he reveals that he has a pocket watch engraved with the phrase “From Conway to Conway.” A charming criminal with a huge ego? No points for guessing that he will ultimately have a change of heart, and end up fighting for the good guys.

There's a few twists in the plot, a revelation of an ultimate bad guy, and a thug with a big, awesome, fake-looking scar painted onto his face. Man, that's a wicked-looking scar. There's also a scene late in the film where the bad guy tortures people by tying them to the ground shirtless, and dangling real live tarantulas over them. No special effects. Real tarantulas.

Conway also tries not-so-subtly to slime his way into Natalie's pants. Since Conway has information on the rebels and may know the location of the missing holy man, Dufort encourages his wife to flirt with him. De Carlo heroically declares that she's attracted to him, although I got the sense that she was, in real life, a bit put off by Mature's bug-eyed come-ons.

This film starts with an ambush, and ends with a spectacular shoot-out involving machineguns. Aside from war films, I think this is the earliest film I've seen to feature a machinegun battle. Tourneur knows how to shoot an action sequence, and the quick cuts and multiple deaths feels less like a 1950s B-feature, and more like a modern-day action film. Tourneur, in this regard, was far ahead of his time.

There's something comforting about old action films. Something constant. The trappings of action and adventure stories are, despite changing cinema styles and tone, reassuringly universal. Why not relive it with something that Tourneur made?