Alistair MacLean is now relatively little known but back in the 60s and 70s he was just about the most popular thriller writer in the world (his books actually outsold Ian Fleming’s Bond novels). Most of MacLean’s novels ended up being filmed, with varying degrees of success. The 1972 film version of Fear Is the Key is one of the lesser known MacLean adaptations but it’s actually pretty good.
This movie received lukewarm studio support and failed to set the box office alight, and then more or less disappeared into obscurity.
It certainly hits the ground running. We start with a cargo plane being shot down then we move on to an epic extended car chase. This was not a big-budget feature but the car chase is exciting and well-executed.
John Talbot (Barry Newman) is on the run and as he explains to Sarah Ruthven (Suzy Kendall) he has absolutely nothing to lose. As we will later find out, he’s not kidding. Sarah is the woman he takes hostage in a daring courtroom escape.
Talbot eventually gets caught, but not by the police. He is offered a deal by a criminal gang and he finds himself caught up in something very big indeed.
The opening car chase is difficult to top but the climax, in a bathyscaphe 1200 feet below the sea, is pretty decent as well.
This was a British production but was filmed on location in Louisiana and it takes full advantage of the setting. The special effects were done by Derek Meddings who had started his career in Gerry Anderson’s 1960s puppet science fiction TV series such as Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet and would later work on most of the Roger Moore Bond movies.
Barry Newman is not the world’s most charismatic actor but he’s well cast as the bitter and obsessed Talbot. Perhaps a more likeable protagonist might have helped the movie commercially but the demands of the story really require Talbot to be a taciturn anti-hero and for my money his performance is fine. Suzy Kendall is a perfectly adequate heroine.
John Vernon makes a suitably chilling smooth but evil bad guy while Ben Kingsley does well as one of his psycho henchmen. Dolph Sweet (great name!) is effective as a crooked ex-cop.
The plot includes some major twists and we discover that things are not quite as they seemed to be. These twists are handled effectively and although we have our suspicions about Talbot’s real motivations we really don’t know just how far his obsessions will push him, and more importantly the other characters don’t know that either.
Director Michael Tuchner made only a couple of feature films before settling into a successful career in television. He handles the action scenes very confidently. The pacing drags just a little in the middle but on the whole the tension is maintained successfully enough.
Studiocanal’s barebones Region 2 DVD offers a superb anamorphic transfer (the movie was shot in the 2.35:1 Cinemascope aspect ratio).
All in all this movie delivers plenty of action and some dark psychological thriller moments. The car chase is excellent and any movie that includes undersea action in a bathyscaphe definitely deserves bonus points. The superb use of the Louisiana locations is another major plus.
Fear Is the Key is a thoroughly enjoyable action thriller. It’s not quite in the same league as Where Eagles Dare but it compares favourably to other MacLean adaptations such as Puppet on a Chain, The Satan Bug and When Eight Bells Toll (all of which are well worth seeing also).