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Fear is the Key


‘…plays like a Bond movie, if the Bond movies ever considered Ian Fleming’s writings as source material…’

It’s a pleasure to put neglected work in front of a new audience; classic 1972 thriller Fear is the Key is a film that really deserves to be brought to the attention of the John Wick crowd. A hard-core black-ops specialist, heartbroken by personal tragedy, sets out to extract personal and professional revenge against the syndicate he believes responsible; the notes are similar, but this adaptation of Alistair Maclean’s 1962 novel plays them in a different order, and the effect is striking.

An ingenious soft-opening sees Talbot (Barry Newman) cut off mid-conversation with a radio-connection; only when you know the whole story do you understand what he was listening to. We then jump forward three years, and Talbot is on the lam. He hits a dive, a red-neck bar, and demands bourbon on a Sunday; arrested and taken to court to be charged, he escapes, taking a hostage Sarah Ruthven (Suzy Kendall) and stealing a car before embarking on a marathon car-chase as he aims to shake off the authorities.

What’s Talbot doing? Has he lost his mind? He behaves like a sociopath, but there’s method in his madness. Michael Tuchner’s film plays like a Bond movie, if the Bond movies ever considered Ian Fleming’s writings as source material; it’s lean, cynical, caustic and keeps you guessing as to the motives of all the characters. Sarah is the daughter of a millionaire, who happens to have invested in lucrative salvage operations; why was she at the courtroom that day? What drives Talbot’s rampage? And what are the motives of the sinister Vyland (John Vernon) and his henchman (Ben Kingsley)?

For once, the action is the key; reuniting Newman with a team that brought his classic Vanishing Point car-chases to life, Fear is the Key has some rip-snorting, kinetic sequences that turn out to have a clever purpose; As Talbot’s bright red 1972 Gran Torino navigates the board-walks and river-beds of Louisiana, we slowly realise that he’s putting on a show to convince Sarah that he’s the baddest of bas-asses. So when things settle down to a more sedate pace, we’re still as breathless as she is, and trying to work out if Talbot is on the ‘side of the angels’ as he puts it, or not.

Newman is great here in double denim, sneering at the authorities and very much his own man, while Kendal does well with Sarah’s haughtiness. This is a stripped down story of professional killers, circling each other like sharks, and with super widescreen photography and a rousing jazz-funk/funk jazz fusion score by Roy Budd, the film doesn’t feel dated at all. A remake or reboot has been mooted, and has potential to start a franchise; John Wick did it in style, but Maclean got there first; setting a tough oil-rig expert against ruthless criminals makes for one cinematic universe that’s really well worth expanding…

Thanks to Studio Canal for access to this title.


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  1. I’m intrigued. A Bond story with a touch of Wick? That’s a recipe for a fantastic flick! But how’s the action compared to how Reeves’ performance? Do they actually put in legit choreographic work to make the action sequences worthwhile on the silver screen? Great review. Will keep an eye out for this director and this movie!

    • This is car-fu rather than knife fu or horse fu, but the main character would give Wick a run for his money…

  2. I LOVED MacClean’s books (see how I cleverly butchered the name there? I learned that from this guy I know. He taught me everything about butchering names 😉 ) Back in highschool I devoured them as our library had a lot of them and what they didn’t my dad did. I thought they were the best things ever.

    I tried a couple of years ago to re-read them as a slightly more mature man. They held up about as well as Louis L’amour’s westerns 🙁 Sometimes we change enough that we can’t go back and our entertainment habits reflect this more honestly than our minds.

    Now that Wick exists, I do wonder if books/movies like this stand a chance. They’ll be compared to Wick, no matter that their source material is as old as Reeves 😀 I wouldn’t mind some more like this redone if they were standalones. Tell ONE story and tell it well. Then move on.


  3. When I was about 15 or 16, give or take a year or so, I actually read the book this movie was based on. I obviously can’t remember much about it, but I do know that I enjoyed it. And…I never even realised there was a movie until reading this. This once again totally sounds like my cup of tea again. Even though there are no black speedboats in this…(or are there??) That said…whatever happened to the delivery of those? Were they taken?🤔🤔
    Great post! Have a good weekend !😊

  4. I had a ‘thing’ for Barry Newman when he played Petrocelli, but the only movie of his I’ve seen is Vanishing Point, only saw it last year and really enjoyed it so this sounds up my street.

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