The revenge movie has been a perennial genre since the very beginnings of cinema. While film historians disagree as to the very earliest example, there is little dispute amongst them that the 1913 silent production of The Count of Monte Cristo, based on Alexandre Dumas’ novel, established the category and made it a favorite of moviegoers.
Since those fledgling days of filmmaking, literally thousands of revenge films have been produced. Some of them, such as The Searchers, Straw Dogs, Cape Fear, The Revenant, and Unforgiven, not only collected untold millions in box office receipts, but also earned honors and accolades from award events and critics the world over.
I myself am a huge fan of the genre, especially when the revenge theme is combined with fast cars, such as in the original John Wick, one of my favorite movies of the last ten years.
It goes without saying then, that I am consistently on the lookout for revenge pictures from the past that have somehow evaded my radar. Lucky for me, and hopefully you too, I stumbled upon just such a film two weeks ago, in the form of 1972’s Fear is the Key.
Beyond its subject matter, consisting largely of gratuitous violence and high-speed chases, the movie also has some rather illustrious figures in the world of Hollywood attached to it, making it, in my mind, a no-brainer to be this month’s subject of Rob’s Car Movie Review.
So let’s get after it!
Fear is the Key was the result of the efforts of legendary producers Elliott Kastner (Where Eagles Dare, The Long Goodbye, Angel Heart) and Alan Ladd Jr. (Braveheart, Gone Baby Gone, The Man in the Iron Mask).
Based on the novel by best-selling author Alistair MacLean (Ice Station Zebra, The Guns of Navarone), the screenplay was penned by Robert Carrington, who had previously written the harrowing thriller, Wait Until Dark. Directing the film was relative newcomer, Michael Tuchner.
Starring is Barry Newman, fresh off another car movie you may have heard of, the classic Vanishing Point, in which his character, Kowalski, tears across the American desert in a souped up 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T with law enforcement hot on his tail the whole time.
Joining him is a superb ensemble, which includes Suzy Kendall, John Vernon (Dean Vernon Wormer in Animal House!), Dolph Sweet, and Sir Ben Kingsley in his first film role.
Fear is the Key’s narrative follows that of MacLean’s book fairly closely, and centers around the exploits of John Talbot (Newman), a seemingly sociopathic criminal.
The first time we see him, he is in a remote location, talking to a man and a woman on a cargo plane via a field radio. During the conversation, he hears their plane being shot down.
Some time later, he pulls into a small Louisiana town, and causes a disturbance in a gas station, leading to a fistfight with a pair of policemen who ultimately arrest him.
In court, a judge decides to hold him without bail until trial, based on an outstanding Interpol warrant for murdering a police officer in Amsterdam. As he is about to be led out of the courtroom, Talbot grabs a deputy’s pistol, shoots a lawman, and takes a beautiful young woman, Sarah Ruthven, (Kendall) hostage.
The two flee the courtroom and Talbot steals a car, speeding away with police in close pursuit. After an extended chase, Talbot and his hostage take refuge in a houseboat. Their stay is interrupted when they are apprehended by Herman Jablonsky, who informs Talbot that his hostage, Sarah, is the daughter of a mega-wealthy oil driller, and states his intention to return Sarah to her father for a reward.
After returning Sarah to her father, Talbot is taken into custody by two Ruthvan family henchman, Vyland (Vernon) and Royale (Kingsley), who offer Jablonsky employment keeping watch over Talbot to ensure he does not escape.
While alone in a room that Talbot is being held, it is revealed to us that Talbot and Jablonsky are good friends, and are in fact in cahoots with one another in some unknown plot.
Vyland and Royale explain to Talbot what they want him to do: recover something off the seafloor of the Gulf of Mexico near one of Ruthvan’s oil rigs, something they know Talbot can accomplish owing to his prior experience in underwater salvage. In return, they promise to release Talbot and provide him with money and a South American visa.
Late that night, Talbot sneaks out of the house and reconnoiters the oil rig involved in Vyland and Royale’s plans. Evidence there leads him to realize that Vyland and Royale are working on their own behalf and have threatened Ruthvan into financing their plot.
Talbot returns to the Ruthvan compound to discover that Jablonsky has outlasted his usefulness and has been murdered.
Talbot then sneaks into Sarah’s bedroom and confesses all. The brawl at the gas station, the court appearance, the subsequent shooting of the courtroom deputy, the kidnapping and car chase, as well as their apprehension by Jablonsky were all set up. They were pre-arranged events designed solely to get Talbot close to Vyland and Royale, whom, he believes, are likely to dispose of Sarah and her father once they get what they want off the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. Talbot is successful in convincing her that he is telling the truth and recruits her to secretly help him.
The next evening, Vyland and Royale take Talbot, Sarah, and her father to the oil rig. They then reveal their plan to have Talbot pilot a bathyscaphe to the underwater location where their prize is: a large cache of gold and diamonds worth in excess of $80 million.
Will Talbot acquiesce and pilot the submersible? What was Talbot’s plan to get close to Vyland and Royale intended to accomplish? Where did the gold and jewels come from? The answers to all of these questions hang in the balance as the film’s climax unfolds.
Phew. If that sounds like a somewhat convoluted and contrived plot, you wouldn’t be wrong. While Fear is the Key laudably keeps you guessing as to the next plot twist, it is sometimes at the expense of straining your suspension of disbelief. Are we really to believe that court officers, judges, and cops were all in on Talbot’s scheme to get inside the Ruthvan compound? Exactly who is Talbot that he is able to pull such strings? How is he experienced in such complex infiltration and counterintelligence?
Perhaps this sort of stuff is elaborated upon in the book, but alas, there are no answers to any of this in the film.
Provided you can overlook all these things, Fear is the Key is a well-executed and highly-taught thriller. It captures the same gritty feeling of other crime films of the era such as The French Connection and Serpico, and makes the most of its excellent cast. Barry Newman successfully gives us the impression of a man with nothing left to lose, and both John Vernon and Ben Kingsley are excellent as the malignant and ruthless criminals they portray.
Direction, cinematography, and editing are all top-notch to boot.
But where the movie truly excels is in its automotive action, and this should be of no surprise, since the stunt coordinator of the film was another Hollywood luminary: the legendary Carey Loftin.
Responsible for stunts and coordination in hundreds of films spanning his 61-year career, Loftin was the driving force (pun intended) behind many of the most legendary car chase sequences in cinematic history, including those in Bullitt, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, White Line Fever, The Sugarland Express, The Getaway, Duel, and yes, The French Connection and Vanishing Point.
For this film, director Tuchner and Loftin seemed to want to outdo the acclaimed chases in the recently released latter two films. As to whether it achieved that in terms of excitement is debatable, but what is not is its duration.
Spanning some thirteen minutes of screen time, fully half of the first act of the movie, the sequence sees Talbot and Sarah evade dozens of police cars in a 1972 Ford Gran Torino Sport Sportsroof.
As Ford was the vehicle supplier for the movie, Loftin chose the Gran Torino as the hero vehicle because the only other muscle car option would have been a Mustang, a car he and Steve McQueen had already made iconic just three years earlier in Bullitt.
Draped in 2B Bright Red paint that looks decidedly orange, probably due to the color timing of the film, the Torino looks bold and brash with its gaping maw of a grille, prominent, dual slot hood scoop, and Magnum 500 wheels with fat rubber.
The ’72 could be had with a variety of V8 mills, including a 140 horsepower 302 Windsor, a 351 Cleveland with 161 horsepower, a 168 pony 400 cubic-inch lump, a 429 cubic-inch 385 Series V8 capable of 205 horses, and a 351 Cobra Jet putting out 248 horsepower.
Sadly, details as to what the movie car packed are seemingly lost to time, but given the requirements of some of the stunts, I’d say at least one car used during filming was equipped with either of the two top motors.
Whatever was propelling the car, power was transmitted to the rear drive wheels courtesy of an automatic slushbox, as evidenced by several interior shots. Depending on what was under the hood, these would have been either the C4, FMX, or C6 SelectShift Cruise-O-Matic three speeds.
The Gran Torino is put through a lot during the chase by stunt drivers Loftin and Joie Chitwood Jr., including several jumps, one of which involves landing the car on the deck of a departing ferry boat. So rough was the treatment to the Ford, that one can clearly see in some shots that the front end had buckled at the firewall. All-in-all an astonishing chase sequence, one that should be every bit as hallowed as those in the aforementioned films.
Fear is the Key is not a perfect movie, but its flaws are balanced out by its many positive facets, including fine pacing, surprise twists, excellent performances, and, oh, that car chase.
I’m glad I came across Fear is the Key, as it is a somewhat forgotten picture that is worthy of viewing by any revenge, thriller, or car movie junkie. What’s more, I’m happy to have “discovered” it just after the passing of the great Barry Newman, a fine thespian, and by all accounts, a good human being.
Here’s to you, Kowalski.
I give Fear is the Key six and a half out of ten pistons, and suggest you visit it too.