Fear is the Key (1972)

UK / 100 minutes / color / Kastner–Ladd–Kanter, Anglo–EMI, KLK Dir: Michael Tuchner Pr: Alan Ladd Jr., Jay Kanter Scr: Robert Carrington Story: Fear is the Key (1961) by Alistair MacLean Cine: Alex Thomson Cast: Barry Newman, Suzy Kendall, John Vernon, Dolph Sweet, Ben Kingsley, Ray McAnally, Peter Marinker, Elliott Sullivan.

Many of the adaptations of MacLean’s popular novels were epic blockbusters with major stars among the cast: The Guns of Navarone (1961) dir J. Lee Thompson, with Gregory Peck, David Niven, Anthony Quinn, Stanley Baker and Anthony Quayle, for example, or Ice Station Zebra (1968) dir John Sturges, with Rock Hudson, Patrick McGoohan, Ernest Borgnine and Jim Brown. At the opposite end of the scale lies this quite palpably lower-budget outing: although released as an A-movie it has B-movie written all over it. It can also, with its themes of revenge and godgaming and its convoluted plot, and despite having plenty of sequences of MacLeanesque high adventure and some quite Bondish moments, be considered as lying within the noir genre, and indeed as one of the precursors, alongside such near-contemporaries as KLUTE (1971), of the modern neonoir subgenre.

Fear is the Key - Barry Newman, with a young Ben Kingsley behind as the psycho Royale

Barry Newman as our avenging hero, Talbot. That youthful figure behind him is Ben Kingsley, here playing a psycho, Royale.

Three years ago, in a remote radio outpost, airline owner John Montague Talbot (Newman) was speaking with his wife when the plane in which she, his brother and his son were traveling was shot down by a bogus USAF fighter jet; aboard the downed plane was a fortune in gold and gems being brought out of Honduras.

Now Talbot seems to be a bum drifting through Louisiana. In a remote gas station/bar he picks a fight with a couple of cops and is brought to trial. Just as Judge Mollison (Sullivan) prepares to throw the book at him, Talbot grabs a gun, shoots down a cop and flees, seizing a young woman, Sarah Ruthven (Kendall), as hostage. There ensues fifteen or twenty minutes of one of cinema’s more ambitious car chases, on both roads and rough surfaces. Eventually Talbot evades the last cop car and drives himself and Sarah to a broken down-shack somewhere in the middle of a swamp.

Fear is the Key - part of the legendary car chase

There’s a legendary car chase in the early stages of the movie.

But they’ve been pursued by ex-NYPD cop, now bounty hunter, Herman Jablonski (Sweet). He explains to the still-terrified Sarah that her father, oil billionaire Alexander Ruthven (McAnally), is sure to pay him a sizeable reward for delivering her back to him—even more for letting him have her kidnapper. In due course, Sarah’s safely home and Ruthven is pressing money on Jablonski. Also present are the icily ruthless master crook Tom Vyland (Vernon) and various of his thugs, notably the psycho hitman Royale (Kingsley, in his only movie role before Gandhi [1982], a decade later). It’s evident that Ruthven and Vyland are up to their eyes in a major criminal enterprise and that, despite Ruthven’s billions, it’s Vyland who’s pulling the string. Vyland insists that, for the sake of security, Jablonski remain with them for the foreseeable future.

We soon discover that Talbot and Jablonski are in league; later, after Vyland’s goons have murdered Jablonski, Talbot explains to Sarah that everything, including the courtroom scene and her kidnapping, has been a setup from the outset with the sole purpose of infiltrating him into Vyland’s enterprise.

Somewhere in Talbot’s past lurks time spent as a salvage expert—in particular, experience with a particular experimental model of bathyscaphe, the Fathom, capable of descent to unheard-of depths. It’s this expertise that Vyland is preserving his life for—we all understand that, as soon as Talbot has fulfilled his function for Vyland, it’ll be curtains for him. It comes as no surprise that Vyland and Ruthven have the purloined bathyscaphe moored underwater beside one of Ruthven’s rigs, nor that the target of their operation is to be the recovery from the ocean floor of the fortune that, three years ago, was being brought out of Honduras . . .

Fear is the Key - Talbot (Barry Newman) secretly scouts the rig BFear is the Key - Talbot (Barry Newman) secretly scouts the rig A

In true James Bond fashion, Talbot (Barry Newman) dons frogman gear to go scout through the supervillain’s hi-tech oilrig HQ . . . without ever quite getting caught.

There are plenty of further twists and turns before Talbot finally attains vengeance not just against Vyland for having murdered his family but against Royale for the murder of Talbot’s old pal Jablonski. He does this in the bathyscaphe sitting on the ocean floor at a depth of 1200 feet!

Although the introductory car chase is, as noted, extensive and expertly choreographed, much of the rest has a sort of direct-to-video feel to it, with merely journeyman direction, special effects and props at which it’s wise not to look too closely, and some pretty ordinary acting. Newman and Kendall for the most part deliver their lines as if on first run-through, while Kingsley seems not yet to have blossomed as an actor; it’s almost unnerving to see him with a full head of hair. Among numerous tiny continuity oddities, one is that, within mere minutes after being returned to her father’s home, Sarah somehow manages to have fitted in having her hair restyled!


On Amazon.com: Fear is the Key

7 thoughts on “Fear is the Key (1972)

  1. I do know of this film John. But it is one film based on MacLean I haven’t yet seen. Your summary assessment seems split down the middle for the most part. But a terrific review for sure!

    • Thanks for the kind words! As you’ll have guessed, it’s not a movie I’d walk a million miles to see, but at the same time it’s not one to be avoided at all costs: mainly mediocre but with enough good bits to at least partly redeem it.

  2. Pingback: Fear is the Key (1972) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film | Tipping My Fedora

  3. Regardless of the rest of the movie, the car chase and its accompanying music by British composer Roy Budd (Get Carter, Zeppelin) is superb. It really takes advantage of the Louisiana landscape and has lots of nuance (if you can have such a thing in a car chase). They must have used at least 3 Ford Torinos for that scene.

    • The fact that I can still recall the car chase you mention several years after having watched the movie is, I think, evidence that you’re perfectly correct in what you say. I really must dig Fear is the Key out at some point for another viewing.

  4. Just thinking about this again and I still think you were a bit harsh 🙂 I mean, yes, it is a B movie through and through and Suzy Kendall in particular is let down by thin characterisation. But in terms of story structure, in which we see several events that don’t quite ring true which are then revealed to part of a complex plan, I think it is a model of its kind. And I thought some of the model work by the great Derek Meddings was superb! The UK release on DVD offers the film in a pretty impeccable anamorphic transfer – no extras but really terrific.

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