American audiences are willing to accept almost anything in a Hollywood genre film within reason but Timbuktu (1959), directed by Jacques Tourneur, aggressively pushes the envelope with its exotic, studio bound sets, American character actors playing murderous Islamic rebels and some of the looniest pulp fiction dialogue of any B-movie of the fifties. Tourneur's best work (Cat People , Out of the Past ) was clearly behind him when he made this clichéd action adventure film but despite the undistinguished nature of the project it has its diversions such as two imaginatively staged torture scenes involving tarantulas and a tongue-in-cheek performance from Victor Mature whose character prefigures the Indiana Jones figure from the Steven Spielberg films. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast plays it straight resulting in a film that veers between unintentional parody and colorless programmer.
Timbuktu wasn't a particularly happy moviemaking experience for Tourneur who disagreed with his producer, Edward Small, over various aspects of the film. In the end, Small ended up removing his name from the credits but not before inflecting some wrong-headed creative decisions on Tourneur's completed picture. The director later commented, "I had shot Timbuktu with Victor Mature, who isn't a great actor, and the film wasn't terrible. But the producer, feeling that the film wasn't long enough, decided to shoot close-ups of extras with various expressions, which he inserted in certain sequences. So, suddenly, right in the middle of a battle, you saw more or less bewildered faces for long minutes. People must have said to themselves, 'Tourneur has gone completely gaga.'"
Even if Small hadn't sabotaged some of the film's action sequences with his inserts, the often risible dialogue prevents Timbuktu from being taken too seriously. Take, for example, this exchange between Conway and Natalie on a moonlit balcony:
Conway: "You know, around here knives have a way of sailing through the dark and you're a very attractive target."
Natalie: "Uh, why the costume?" (referring to his Islamic clothing)
Conway: "I know it looks pretty silly but it's much safer."
Natalie: "Wouldn't it be safer being in America?"
Conway: "And give up this golden opportunity to get rich?"
There are other equally show-stopping exchanges and quotable one-liners such as Mature announcing "I've got the holy man stashed" or provoking his torturer with "Bring on the spiders!" One would expect something a little more plausible from co-scenarist Anthony Veiller, who received Oscar nominations for his screenplays for Stage Door  and The Killers , and worked with director John Huston on four films, including his film adaptation of Tennessee Williams' The Night of the Iguana .
Just as damaging to the film's credibility was a cast of swarthy-looking American extras, dressed up in robes and shoras, and pretending to be menacing Islamic fanatics. This foolishness was capped by having New York City native John Dehner play their leader. Dehner, who got his start as an animator at Walt Disney studios, switched to acting in the forties and played Palladin in the radio version of the TV hit, Have Gun, Will Travel and memorable supporting roles in such movies as 1958's The Left Handed Gun (where he played sheriff Pat Garrett to Paul Newman's Billy the Kid) and Anthony Mann's Man of the West (1958).
George Dolenz, cast as the stolid, duty-born French colonel, was a prolific character actor of the forties and fifties but his son, Mickey (of the TV pop group The Monkees), is the more famous family member. Also lurking around in a conspicuous supporting role and sporting a hideous scar that runs in a diagonal line down his face is Paul Wexler (he plays Suleyman) who looks like he wandered in from a Three Stooges costume spoof. Wexler, who resembles a skinnier, more elongated version of that cult icon Timothy Carey, will be familiar to movie buffs who remember him from The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (1959) as a mad doctor's native assistant with lips sewn-shut and other B-movies (The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters , The Kettles in the Ozarks ).
While Timbuktu was never meant to be anything other than a Saturday matinee potboiler and occasionally works on that level, Tourneur scholars and followers will find larger meanings in it in the context of his entire career. While it does share similarities with the ménage a trois setup of his Great Day in the Morning  and Appointment in Honduras , the film also displays an obsession with time (a plot concern of Tourneur's Night of the Demon  and other films) from Conway's self-engraved watch ("From Conway to Conway") to the climactic race toward Timbuktu. The movie also traffics in its share of surreal metaphors, such as Conway substituting sewing machines for machine guns in one of his arms shipments. All of which inspired film critic/journalist Chris Fujiwara, one of Tourneur's avid champions, to write, "Timbuktu is an absurd film but one that glows with a special, dismal negative splendor... Timbuktu marks the end of Tourneur's Hollywood career, not because it is a summation....but because it continues...both the generic traditions of Hollywood cinema and Tourneur's characteristically dry, disenchanted and aestheticized way of approaching them...For all its faults, Timbuktu remains a Tourneur work."
Producer: Edward Small (uncredited)
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Screenplay: Paul Dudley, Anthony Veiller
Cinematography: Maury Gertsman
Art Direction: William Glasgow
Music: Gerald Fried
Cast: Victor Mature (Mike Conway), Yvonne De Carlo (Natalie Dufort), George Dolenz (Col. Dufort), John Dehner (Emir), Marcia Henderson (Jeanne Marat), Robert Clarke (Capt. Girard), James Foxx (Lt. Marat), Paul Wexler (Suleyman).
by Jeff Stafford
Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall by Chris Fujiwara (John Hopkins University Press)