Fear is the Key (1972) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

Maclean_Fear-is-the-Key_fawcettWith news of a possible remake, the time seemed right to take a look at this adaptation of Alistair MacLean’s 1961 novel, my favourite of the slew of films made from his books in the 70s. It stars Barry Newman, who was not yet Petrocelli on TV, so at the time was best-known for Vanishing Point (1971). And like that film, he plays quite an enigmatic character and a proficient driver, though this movie has much more plot. We begin with an air attack heard but not seen and then segue to several years later with our protagonist behaving very badly …

This review is offered for Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at Sweet Freedom; and Bev’s Silver Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt

“I looked in the mirror and that was a mistake. Black hair, black brows, dark blue eyes and a white strained haggard face to remind me how desperately worried I was.”

The book begins with a prologue set in 1958 with a cargo plane shot down over the Gulf of Mexico while our narrator listens in horror over the radio. We then shift forward a couple of years as he is being arraigned in court – he now has red hair, a limp and a scar, so the years have really not been good to him! We are told that he arrived from Cuba and is wanted for attempted murder – he decides to make a break for it, shoots a guard and flees, taking as hostage a young woman, Mary Ruthven, who happened to be sitting in court that day. However, it turns out he picked the wrong hostage as her father, General Blair Ruthven, is said to be ‘the richest oil man in the United States’ and has powerful friends – as a result they soon catch up with him and Talbot ends up being used by them in an illegal operation being run from an oil platform. But there are plenty of twists in store as very little of what we have experienced so far is actually as it seems, So I’ll add little more to the plot description, except to say that the story moves at a tremendous pace, the payoff is a good one, and as usual, the author’s descriptions of things at sea were, for this reader, a bit on the long and overly detailed side.

“Shut up!” I interrupted contemptuously. “Shut up or I’ll turn a knob here, pull a switch there and have the two of you grovelling on your hands and knees and begging for your lives …”

In adapting the book, the locale was shifted to Louisiana and events moved forward by about a decade. But apart from that, the film is remarkably faithful, keeping all of the plot, the structure and most of the characters and dialogue too. While it never aimed to compete with such big budget extravaganzas such as The Guns of Navarone (1961), Ice Station Zebra or Where Eagles Dare (both 1968), this compares extremely well with such smaller scale adaptation as the previous year’s When Eight Bells Toll.

The early sections of the film were shot on location in Southern Louisiana (partly around Terrebonne Parish), seen at its best for the astonishingly extended car chase that makes up the bulk of the early part of the film. The stunt co-ordinator was Carey Loftin, who does a terrific job here, aided by a superb score by Roy Budd, which features some of the greatest jazz players active in Britain at the time including Kenny Baker (trumpet), Jeff Clyne (bass), Tubby Hayes (tenor sax), Chris Karan (drums) and Ronnie Scott featured on sax during the car chase.

“In the right hands, fear is the deadliest weapon of all” – original poster tagline

The bulk of the film was actually shot in the UK at Bray Studios in Berkshire (the Ruthven residence is actually Binfield Manor), which is why most of the cast and nearly all the crew are British, including the great special effects expert Derek Meddings (Thunderbirds, The Spy Who Loved Me, etc.) who does a very impressive job with some seamless model work for the underwater sequences. The cast is generally very good, the most unexpected being Ben Kingsley, who in a nearly silent role, makes for a memorable villain before disappearing from the cinema for a decade before becoming a star in Gandhi (in between he appeared in a lot of TV and theatre productions however). Barry Newman is just right as the intense protagonist while Dolph Sweet is really good as the ex-cop who falls into bad company but who has unexpected layers. From a production standpoint the film always looks good and the oil rig climax is very well handled. This thriller won’t necessarily rock your world but it is much better than average, with a clever plot, a good cast and impeccable technical credentials – you should check it out when you have 100 minutes to spare.

For a much more detailed (and much more critical) analysis of the film, look no further than John Grant’s expert entry for it at his Noirish website.

FITKDVD Availability: This is available as a bare bones release in the UK that offers an exemplary anamorphic transfer – there are no extras at all, which is a shame, but when the film looks as good as it does here, then there really is no reason to complain.

Fear is the Key (1972)
Director: Michael Tuchner
Producer: Alan Ladd, Jr, Jay Kanter, Elliott Kastner
Screenplay: Robert Carrington
Cinematography: Alex Thomson
Art Direction: Syd Cain, Maurice Carter
Music: Roy Budd
Cast:  Barry Newman, Suzy Kendall, John Vernon, Ben Kingsley, Dolph Sweet, Ray McAnally

I submit this review for Bev’s Silver Vintage Scavenger Hunt in the ‘plane’ category:


***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in 2016 Silver Vintage Scavenger Hunt, Alistair MacLean, Film Noir, Louisiana, Tuesday's Overlooked Film and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

34 Responses to Fear is the Key (1972) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    I always appreciate it when a thriller also happens to have solid characters and dialogue. I’m glad this one has some ‘meat’ to it as well as the thrills-and-chills. Funny, too – I remember seeing Vanishing Point years ago. Haven’t thought about it in ages.

  2. realthog says:

    A very good account, Sergio. And many thanks for the shoutout!

  3. Giles says:

    good stuff. I discovered this a few years ago (and write about it myself – http://bit.ly/110i6Av) but having never read the source material it’s nice to have the comparison made. The car chase, slow at times yet astute throughout, is the best put to film bar none….and that’s not even the best part of the film.

    Kingsley and Sweet are excellent and John Vernon is great as always, and wow, what a peculiar and gripping ending.

    • Thanks for the link Giles – the ending is great though, ahem, it wouldn’t exactly stand up in court – definitely what you might call a confession extracted under duress 🙂

  4. Sergio, I read this book in the eighties, when I thought the only fiction in the market were popular bestsellers. I have not seen the film, though. MacLean could be descriptive at times, even verbose, unlike Jack Higgins whose narrative is more casual. I will be looking for this adaptation.

    • I will read some proper Higgins soon Prashant – you always inspire me with your reviews and it has been literally decades since I read Eagle Has Landed. I did enjoy going back to MacLean as a sort of journey down memory lane.

  5. Colin says:

    Here’s one of those examples of me having the book and a copy of the movie (although I can’t be 100% sure on the latter) and neither one read or watched.
    Generally, I liked MacLean’s books although they do tend to follow a formula. Up to the 70s, when he started writing books with what seems like the sole purpose of having them filmed, he produced some good solid thrillers and war stories and most of the adaptations were fine, even the least of them offering entertainment.
    He clearly had a great affinity for the sea and it’s very obvious if you read any of his work how big a part it played in his life. He could over-egg the descriptions at times although the early books have plenty of good things going on.

    • Weel, I agree there – I think from the late 60s I think he did pretty much write the screenplay first and then in effect ‘novelise’ it – I think from Where Eagles Dare onward, but I am happy to be corrected on that. Not really a lover of sea stories per se (even when they are written by the likes of Conrad, let alone Melville), so that does tend to put me off a bit …

      • Colin says:

        Fair enough, nobody can be expected to get into detailed descriptions of areas they’re not fussed about in the first place. There’s a bit of a similarity, I reckon anyway, to Hammond Innes (another writer that I have a significant pile of his books still to work through) in the descriptive style and the interest in the sea.

        • He’s another that my Mum used to like a lot but who tends to leave me cold – or rather, I just get a bit confused with the long nautical / technical descriptions and ultimately lose interest (same with Frederick Forsyth) – in fact, by the looks of it, I’m not not really a fin of the big thriller genre, am I … 🙂

          • Colin says:

            I think I remember you saying that despite enjoying the movies, you’re not a fan of western writing. That’s another genre that frequently relies on a sense of place communicated via descriptions of weather conditions and natural features – landscape as opposed to seascape, obviously. Perhaps such elements are problematic for you?
            All of us have things that don’t work for us – too much tech/science or Freeman Wills Crofts-style alibi breaking can drive me to distraction, for example.

          • I don’t know much about Westerns, that is absolutely true (I like Larry McMurtry a lot though), though I love watching them (PANHANDLE next in line on the DVD stakes). I think it just depends on the writer too. I suspect I was never a big fan of ‘adventure’ stories per se. I enjoy thrillers but I have to like what the author is doing in terms of style. Ian Fleming is a good example to me of an author who wrote exciting books and had a very individual style that made him stand out. But then again, I’m much more of a sucker for spy stories, it’s true …

          • Colin says:

            Yeah, it’s odd the way certain things grab us yet others don’t. And while it’s interesting, it’s no big deal either – all that really matters is whether or not we’re getting something we feel is worthwhile out of our reading.

          • It tends to bug me only if I can’t quite figure out why 🙂 I could never bring myself to read the likes of Wilbur Smith for instance (let alone the gigantic brick-like times of Tom Clancy and so on) and don’t see that changing – but never say never …

          • Colin says:

            I’ve read some Wilbur Smith and I know what you mean. In his defense, his material wasn’t always as bloated as it became – Dark of the Sun is a good, tough little story and I seem to remember The Eye of the Tiger being reasonable. Mind you, we’re still talking adventure themed material, so…
            Clancy was always a problem for me – far too much reliance on tech and a seemingly infinite number of military acronyms. I did read a few of his books years ago but I honestly don’t have the time and energy for that type of stuff these days.

          • With Clancy, much as I enjoy the film versions (recently watched the Branagh Jack Ryan reboot and really enjoyed it) I never thought I’d be able to stomach the gargantuan length (or the jingoistic politics). I remember quite liking the film of Dark of the Sun, though I haven’t seen that in decades (I think I saw it on TCM in the 80s). Just wondering whether to get The Marseille Contract (aka The Destructors) as I love the Roy Budd music so much (got back into him after re-watching Fear is the Key of course) – is the film any good?

          • Colin says:

            I haven’t seen that since I don’t know when! I remember it used to pop up on late night TV in the 80s and have memories of enjoying it. The truth is though it’s been so long any opinion I offered would be worthless – score and cast are hard to fault regardless.

          • Well thanks for that – if I can get a decently-priced Italian version (the one on Amazon is just a bit too expensive right now) I’m getting it 🙂

          • Colin says:

            I’d love to know what you think of it if and when. Mind you, I’ll be keeping an eye out myself now you’ve reminded me.

          • See who gets there first!

          • PS just pressed the button, couldn’t stop myself …

          • Colin says:

            Sometimes it is irresistible, as I very well know. I look forward to hearing what your impressions are when you see it.

  6. richmonde says:

    Loved Alistair Maclean in the late 60s. This must be the one that influenced Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow. I liked his witty first-person style back then, and put him on the same shelf as Conrad’s Typhoon and Narcissus, and sea books by Malcolm Lowry and Gore Vidal – yes, that Gore Vidal! And Henry Richard Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast. In fact, as a teen I loved any book where people shouted “We must jury rig the donkey engine!”. (Another good thing about first-person narration by an ordinary bloke – complete lack of Fine Writing.)

    • Thanks Lucy – have you read the Patrick O’Brien books? My Ma is a huge fan. I do remember the Gore Vidal book quite well – we’re talking about Williwaw, yes, which he wrote while serving in the Aleutians? I remember really liking The Caine Mutiny (did you know that Herman Wouk is 101 and still with us? It was his birthday last week).

  7. Never seen the film but I binged on MacLean as a teenager, and very much enjoyed the book. As has been said,he became increasingly formulaic, and I grew tired of the formula, but at his best, he wrote excellent thrillers. And I seem to recall the theme music of this film, which I found on a soundtrack complilation, was pretty good too.

  8. I was another teenage MacLean fan – I wasn’t sure about this title, but as soon as you started on the plot I recognized it. I don’t think I loved any of the films, but I did love those books….

  9. Filmklassik says:

    Newman’s been the weak link in just about everything he starred in, being charmless and — worse yet — thoroughly unconvincing, so I wasn’t able to get beyond the first 30 minutes or so, but this review of yours may just persuade me. Good stuff!

    That being said, I do wish his namesake Paul had played the lead. Alas…

    • I used to really like him in Petrocelli, so we probably have different reactions to him, but either way I do think he is very well cast here because for the first half hour or so you are really not supposed to know whether you can trust him or not. Worth a look I think!

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