American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
I've always preferred Batman to Superman because Batman's stunts are at least theoretically possible. When he swings from the Playboy Building to the John Hancock Center, he uses a rope. Meanwhile, Superman is holding up toppling skyscrapers and stopping bullets with his teeth. For the same reason I like Batman more than Superman, I like detective movies more than spy movies. Detectives are flesh and blood people who just barely get by; spies, on the other hand, are always pulling out nuclear cigaret lighters and vaporizing helicopters.
We've just about exhausted the spy-movie binge of the late 1960s, and now maybe a trend is beginning back toward detective movies. Last year's "Marlowe," based on the Raymond Chandler characters, was a pale shadow of "The Big Sleep" (1946) or "The Lady in the Lake." But now comes "Darker Than Amber" with Rod Taylor playing Travis McGee, and it's a surprisingly good movie.
For reasons that escape me, Taylor is usually cast as a taciturn, poker-faced strongman whose big acting task is to look calm behind a machine-gun. He's usually seen storming World War II bunkers, and Antonioni wanted him for "Zabriskie Point" precisely because Taylor could be aloof and colorless.
As McGee, however, Taylor is vulnerable and funny and even slightly Celtic. He inhabits the role easily; if you're a John D. MacDonald fan, you won't question the casting. The movie is also at ease with itself. "Marlowe" kept trying for false climaxes, but "Darker Than Amber" has confidence in its MacDonald plot and moves at just the right distance between action and characterization.