Journey Into Fear

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Moody but rushed early spy movie

Oct 24, 2004
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  • User Rating: Excellent

  • Suspense:

Pros:Noirish look, range of characters

Cons:Too rushed

The Bottom Line: Visually striking, but underdeveloped film about skullduggery immediately preceding World War II and the escape from Istanbul to/on a slow boat also carrying Nazi killers.


Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.

The documentary on the making of "The Third Man" includes footage of Orson Welles saying that he did not direct any of it (the documentary also shows that most of it was filmed before Welles arrived in Vienna and that he refused to venture far into the sewers where the climax of the movie was filmed. An earlier, less revered movie in which Welles appeared, the 1942 version of Eric Ambler's spy thriller Journey into Fear certainly has an Orson Welles look — or perhaps the noirish look of "The Lady from Shanghai" and the much later "Touch of Evil" had roots in "Journey into Fear." Credited director Norman Foster had directed a series of Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto movies and also directed the superb (and subperbly titled!) "Kiss the Blood Off My Hands" (with Burt Lancaster's hands and Joan Fontaine doing the kissing). Still, I suspect that, although he received neither directing nor writing credit (credit went to Norman Foster and Joseph Cotten, respectively), some — probably much — of what is up on the screen is Welles's. However, the problem is not whodunit (directed scenes) but that there is not enough there there.

The film is too short to develop the plot (about an expert the Nazis want who is trying to flee from agents who turn up on the same boat the authorities in Turkey have put him on to safeguard him) or the international set of characters. The on-board relationships should have been developed more. All of them seem perfunctorily sketched, and the plot must be confusing to those not familiar with Eric Ambler's (best) novel. Still, I'd say that the shooting by a good marksman who misses his target and stalking him in the nightclub are combined into an altogether more satisfying single event than in the original novel.

The escape from the Nazis is less violent than in Eric Ambler’s book. It is very noirish and photogenic, and the combination of wet chase and the presence of a murky. manipulative character played by Orson Welles and an all-American one played by Joseph Cotten prefigure “The Third Man.” Joseph Cotten had some of the same American innocence and quick outrage in both films. He’s an important munitions engineer here and a hack western-novel writer there. He doesn’t get the dark beauty (Alida Valli or Dolores del Rio) in either film, though he has and keeps a wife in “Journey.” It also prefigures "The Third Man" in that Welles does not appear until quite a ways into the movie's running time.

The elegant Mexican beauty Dolores del Rio is unconvincing as a gypsy and Orson Welles as the head of the Turkish secret police stretches credibility, too. Cotten is completely convincing (and gets too little credit for his fine performances in five of the greatest films of the 1940s Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Shadow of a Doubt, Gaslight, and The Third Man) and such memorably entertaining ones as Duel in the Sun, Portrait of Jennie, and Love Letters.

In short, the black-and-white film provides good illustrations of characters and scenes from the novel and a sketch of its plot and character development. It is suspenseful even for someone who read Ambler's novel not very long before seeing the movie version.

(Although the story starts in Istanbul and involves a fairly clueless American abroad, since he is supposed to have technical expertise rather than being on a mission to change a Muslim society, I will forego making any analogies casting aspersions on the current administration's flounderings in the Mideast while strengthening tyranny in the former Soviet Union and the still communist PRC. I just did? Guess I can't help it. A little of the competence portrayed by Joseph Cotten would be good, but, no doubt, unwelcome among those forging a New World Order with all the prescience of those who proclaimed a Thousand Year Reich and sent operatives to kidnap the Joseph Cotten character in "Journey Into Fear.")





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