Director Richard Donner is responsible for two of my most vivid movie-going memories as a kid. One is “The Goonies” in 1985…hands down, one of the quintessential movies of my youth. The other is 1978’s “Superman.” I would’ve been seven years old seeing that in the theater for the first time and it was such an amazing experience. Still one of the best superhero movies ever made. Donner has made many other films, of course. Having directed all four of the Lethal Weapon films, he did a lot to define the whole buddy cop genre. There he famously teamed a black guy and a white guy and, as the series progressed, mixed a fair amount of comedy with the action. Little did I know that Donner had used a similar formula earlier in his career. The characters weren’t cops, but he did direct a light-hearted, swingin’ 60’s thriller that teamed black (Sammy Davis Jr.) with white (Peter Lawford)…1968’s “Salt and Pepper.”
The film centers on London club owners Chris Pepper (Lawford) and Charlie Salt (Davis), and no, I didn’t switch the names. These guys have quite the happenin’ joint, and they are always under the watchful eye the suspicious Inspector Crabbe (Michael Bates). But trouble really starts for these two when Pepper finds an asian woman lying on the floor of his room. She appears to be drunk or stoned, but she does mumble a few words which pepper thinks is a date and place for a future romantic rendezvous. He promptly gets one of his drivers to take her back to her hotel. But by the time she reaches her hotel, the woman is dead and Crabbe is all too eager to haul in the club owners.
Crabbe is unable to hold the pair for long, but no sooner are they released than they are kidnapped.by the British Secret Service. It turns out that the deceased young woman was actually one of their agents. Colonel Balsam (Ernest Clark) tries to enlist Salt and Pepper to help crack the case, but the danger outweighs the hefty reward for them. However, they soon change their minds when they locate the girl’s diary which includes a list of four men marked for death. They decide perhaps they can solve this case after all, but they are too late to save three of the men.
But Salt and Pepper soon find that they have become a target as well. This leads to bombs planted in compact cases and a car chase through the London streets. For some reason, the pair have a car souped up with nail guns, oil slicks, and the like, which helps in the chase. It even doubles as a boat when the action sends them down the Thames.
Before long, the two end up in the hands of the enemy, once again, on board a mock-up of a submarine. They soon find out that a political group that opposes the current prime minister plans to hijack an actual sub and use it’s nuclear weapons to force the current administration to step down. This group is fully prepared to annihilate a British city if they need to…and only a pair of smooth talking club owners can stop them.
It is very interesting to watch “Salt and Pepper” in light of what Donner did with the Lethal Weapon films. There are certainly similarities. Beyond just the fact that one of the leads is black and one is white, the way Salt and Pepper banter back and forth certainly brought Murtaugh and Riggs to mind. Of course, a lot of this is the whole Rat Pack feel, as well. Both Lawford and Davis were a part of this infamous group of entertainers that centered around Frank Sinatra. I’ve always had somewhat mixed feelings about the Rat Pack. Sometimes their smooth talking attitude is a lot of fun, and sometimes it’s downright annoying. Like you’re watching a bunch of people who are all laughing at some joke…and you’re not in on it. For the most part, though, “Salt and Pepper” comes in on the fun side of the Rat Pack experience. Both Lawford and Davis approach the film with a wonderful playfulness. Mix that with the groovy 60’s vibe, and even a musical number from Davis, and you’ve got a great formula.
But “Salt and Pepper” does experience some of the weaknesses of Donner’s Lethal Weapon films, as well. Primarily in the scenes where the actors were clearly free to wander from the script. Of course, that’s assuming that some of these scenes were scripted in the first place. There are numerous moments where Lawford and Davis seem to be running around, trying to ditch a bomb or something like that, and seem at a loss for what they are supposed to say and do. My guess is the script said something like, “Salt and Pepper run around and say something funny.” Which is pretty much how I always thought some sequences of the Lethal Weapon films must have been scripted. Don’t get me wrong, Davis and Lawford are a lot of fun to watch, but there are several moments where Donner really needed to rein them in. Ditto with Gibson and Glover later in his career. Fans of Donner’s later films will also get a kick out of a scene where Davis encounters a corpse hanging in his closet…it is very similar to a sequence from “The Goonies.”
In the end, “Salt and Pepper” ended up being successful enough to spawn a sequel…the equally forgotten “One More Time” directed by, of all people, Jerry Lewis. I, for one, am game for it. “Salt and Pepper” may have some problems, but it’s fun enough to make me want to see these two team up again.