Talkin’ Oldies: Fear is the Key (1973)
The purpose of this column is to review and encourage people to watch older films. There are three simple rules to meet the criteria for Talkin’ Oldies which are:-
a) The film must be at least 30 years old.
b) The film must be available on DVD or Blu-Ray.
c) The film must not be an established classic (e.g Star Wars, Gone with the Wind, The Godfather, etc.) – these have been reviewed, analyzed and discussed enough. Instead, it must be a film that has been forgotten down the years and is ripe for rediscovery and may have been unfairly forgotten.
Fear Is The Key (1973) fits into the category “Impressive Films You’ve Probably Never Heard Of”. It is based on a novel by Alistair MacLean, a best-selling author of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s who had about three quarters of his books adapted into movies, two of the most famous being The Guns Of Navarone (1961) and Where Eagles Dare (1968). Alas, many of the film versions of MacLean’s books are pretty disappointing and are now generally forgotten. In some cases, this fall into obscurity is wholly warranted – you’ll search far and wide, for example, for a more tediously dreary thriller than Bear Island (1979), or the deplorable River Of Death (1989) which remains one of the most hopelessly inept action titles from the heyday of the 1980s home video boom.
Anyway, back to Fear Is The Key. Here we have a movie which certainly does not deserve to have fallen off the radar. Notable for arguably the most incredible extended car chase ever committed to film (yes, better even than The French Connection and Bullitt), the film is a bone fide “hidden gem”.
The movie opens with a rich and rousing score from one of the great names of cool ‘70s film music, Roy (Get Carter) Budd. As the credits end, the camera pans into a dilapidated radio shack at a barren, overgrown airfield. John Talbot (Barry Newman) is hunched over an old two-way radio, anxiously trying to make contact with Delta Charlie. It transpires that Delta Charlie is, in fact, a flight out of some war-torn South American country piloted by Talbot’s brother, with his wife and young son also on board. Midway through their conversation Talbot is forced to listen in helpless horror as a military fighter jet intercepts his family’s plane and blasts it out of the sky.
Jump forward a few years and we catch up with Talbot once more as he turns up in a Louisiana diner one quiet Sunday afternoon. He proceeds to pick a fight with the owner and the policemen subsequently sent to apprehend him. Appearing in court for his misdemeanours, Talbot makes an audacious escape from the courthouse by kidnapping an innocent spectator – pretty rich girl Sarah Ruthven (Suzy Kendall) – and leads the Louisiana State Police on a hair-raising chase through the local bayous.
The father of Talbot’s prisoner is anxious for her safe return and offers a substantial reward for anyone who can get her back. It isn’t long before Talbot is captured by an opportunist bounty hunter, Jablonsky (Dolph Sweet), who takes the girl and Talbot back to her father’s mansion.
It looks like Talbot is destined to be handed back over to the police but things take a strange turn when Sarah’s father, an ultra-rich oil tycoon, instead introduces Talbot to two of his shady associates, Vyland (John Vernon) and Royale (Ben Kingsley). They claim they will let Talbot go free if he helps them to recover a precious cargo of gems from a crashed plane, lost somewhere on the Gulf of Mexico seabed…
At this point, the story cleverly twists round upon itself. Every plot-point we think we have followed carefully up to now suddenly takes on new significance. Characters we believe we have figured out now take on a whole different perspective. Anyone who loves a good old ‘MacGuffin’ will revel in the ingenious twists on display here.
Newman is great in this movie. Already a cult favourite after playing Kowalski in the angry existential road movie Vanishing Point, he delivers a wonderfully charismatic performance here as the ice-cold anti-hero. It’s a shame that Newman never went on to have a more successful career in Hollywood. Equally commanding are John Vernon and Ben Kingsley as the film’s two main villains. It’s always a pleasure to catch Vernon in any of his 70s bad guy roles, while Kingsley oozes menace in his only pre-Gandhi movie role.
The film is tightly scripted by Robert Carrington, who manages to keep the potentially confusing story always absorbing and believable. The movie builds to a truly stunning underwater climax which literally takes one’s breath away (once you’ve seen the final scene, you’ll know exactly what I mean).
Some films just scream out to be rediscovered. Fear is the Key screams louder than most.
FMV Rating: ****