With 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.
DVD 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: