Fear is the Key (1972)

Alistair MacLean's enjoyable novel feels rushed through in this rather average thriller starring Barry Newman. Optimum UK R2 DVD.

The Film

"Two seconds. Only two seconds. Two seconds to take from me
all this life held dear for me, two seconds to leave me alone in an
empty and desolate and meaningless world."

Alistair MacLean - Fear is the Key

From a small hut on an airport field John Talbot talks to his wife and brother as they fly their plane and is forced to listen in helpless terror as they are shot down and crash into the ocean. Years later Talbot is arrested in a bar and brought before a judge, but after shooting a police officer he escapes and takes a young woman hostage as he flees across the state. He escapes the police persuit but finds himself at gunpoint when an ex-cop known as Jablonsky tracks him down to claim the reward posted for their capture. Jablonsky takes the pair to the house of wealthy local businessman General Ruthven, whose daughter was the hostage. Ruthven pays Jablonsky for the rescue of his daughter, but instead of turning Talbot over to the police he seems to have other plans for this former salvage expert...

Writer Robert Carrington (Wait Until Dark (1967)) gets the job of adapting Alistair MacLean's exciting and near-nihilistic sixth novel and sadly does not do a very good job. Possibly inspired by the previous year's When Eight Bells Toll (1971) and Puppet on a Chain (1971) for which MacLean successfully adapted his own novels, Carrington attempts to follow the same formula by following the book closely, removing a few subplots and characters to keep it to ninety minutes and adding in a couple of scenes to replace sequences we learn of through inner monologues in the book. As far as the latter goes, a new scene at the start showing Talbot getting himself arrested works well to introduce the character.

However Carrington completely fails with the task of trimming down the story and the script becoes as a hopeless mess of storylines that anyone unfamiliar with the book would having real trouble following. A lot of important aspects are missed out including, surprisingly, the closest thing the story has to any romance, Talbot's hopeless feelings for his hostage Sarah and hers for Kennedy who never even appears in the film. Larry does appear, but loses his psychotic drug addiction which is his main characteristic. While some storyline is acceptably sacrificed for a lengthy car chase, a long searching sequence aboard an oil-rig is less important and could have been excised to allow more time for the plot to develop. Even the ending doesn't work as well, missing out the poignant epilogue that ranks as one MacLean's very best.

Fortunately the film is held together by some impressive direction from Michael Tuncher, most notably in the extended car chase sequence that forms the action highlight of the film. Although quite small in scale (only a few police cars get wrecked), with some great stunt driving and a complete absence of rear-projection effects, this certainly ranks among the best cinematic car chases. Unfortunately optical effects do rear their ugly head in the grim and insanely claustrophobic finalé and rather ruin what should be the film's best sequence - made even more annoying by the fact that they could have been easily removed without affecting the scene at all, by simply not having the actors sat in front of a window. Roy Budd, composer of the celebrated score for Get Carter (1971) takes care of the soundtrack with a fitting Jazz theme to accompany the deep South locations.

Vanishing Point (1971) star Barry Newman takes the lead role here, playing the anti-hero role to perfection and a decent match for the character MacLean envisaged (although presumably the producers felt that the "reddest hair and blackest eyebrows... a permanent limp and a scar that ran from the corner of my right brow to the lobe of my right ear" wouldn't suit him too well). Attractive English star Suzy Kendall (L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo (1970)) plays the General's daughter although she doesn't get very much to do. Big American actor John Vernon (The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)) is perfectly cast as the menacing Vyland, while Ben Kingsley (Schindler's List (1993)) makes his film debut as the calmly efficient assassin, Royale.

Suffering badly from a script that cuts out key themes but leaves in unnecessary scenes, the film adaptation of Fear is the Key becomes a rather rushed mess of ideas - it does at least benefit from some good acting and becomes entertaining thanks to a very impressive car chase and generally good direction from Michael Tuncher. The car chase is well worth watching, an exercise in action packed minimalism, but the film as a whole is too messy to be comprehensible to newcomers and misses too many good points to be of interest to fans of the book.

In Brief
Anyone famous in it? Barry Newman - an American actor who also appeared in thriller The Salzburg Connection (1972)
Ben Kingsley - film debut of the British actor, best known for the title role in Gandhi (1982)
Directed by anyone interesting? Michael Tuncher - a lesser known British director who also helmed Griff Rhys Jones and Mel Smith comedy Wilt (1989), and the British crime film Villain (1971).
Any gore or violence ? Nothing vivid.
Any sex or nudity? Some hints, nothing seen.
Who is it for? For fans of well filmed car chases and of passing interest to 70s thriller fans.

Visuals Original Aspect Ratio - 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. Colour.
The print is superb, with vivid colours, strong detail and almost no grain.
Audio English 2.0 mono. Well balanced music and dialogue/effects.
Subtitles None.
Extras None.
Region Region 2 (ALL) - PAL
Other regions? No other releases worldwide.
Cuts? Believed to be fully uncut. English language print.



All text in this review written by Timothy Young - 20th November 2007, updated 11th Feb 2015.
Text from this review not to be used without authorization.

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