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.