Orson Welles may have not directed Journey Into Fear, but it sure looks and feels as if he was behind the lens or at least had a hand in setting up a few scenes. Featuring a bunch of Mercury Productions actors (Cotten, Ruth Warrick, Everett Sloane, Agnes Moorehead and others), a snappy, script by Welles, Joseph Cotten, Richard Collins and Ben Hecht (based on the Eric Ambler novel), the film is a spy drama with a fun cast and some great, memorable sequences that keep you hooked in right from the clever pre-credit opening sequence.
Cotten plays Howard Graham, an American munitions expert (or is that arms dealer?) who has to go on the run from a rather pesky Nazi assassin after an attempt is made on his life. Well, by “on the run”, the film means Graham has to temporarily separate from his wife (Ruth Warrick) and travel by steamship from Istanbul to Batumi (a Russian port city) to finalize a deal with the Turkish Navy. Wait, Turkey had a Navy back then? You learn something new every day, I suppose…
The film only has 68 minutes to tell its story, so it feels a bit too cut to the chase on one hand. On the other hand, this truncated time frame means you get a film that hasn’t a dull moment to it as it forces you to pay attention to every bit of action and dialog. Once Graham gets on that boat, he’s basically trapped there as soon finds out that the assassin is on the boat (eek) as is another surprise for him he’s not even expecting until it’s revealed. This added layer of tension works because it then seems everything Graham had thought was going to go right doesn’t. The gun he’s given vanishes and the help he thinks may come from a man he meets on the ship doesn’t pan out as he thinks it will, leaving him high and dry and seemingly at the mercy of the men who want him dead.
Then, a funny thing happens (or more precisely, a series of funny things happen) and Graham manages to make a temporary escape in a brilliantly shot sequence where a dinky penknife makes for a great survival tool. Graham is reunited with his wife, but their happy reunion is the brief one indeed. Let’s just say that the film’s final minutes get in a gunfight, an oddly amusing slow clambering around a rainy building’s slick ledges chase scene and a fat killer who somehow doesn’t understand the laws of physics will work against him when he tries to use leverage to knock Graham to his demise.
As noted above, the cast is clearly having a blast here. Cotten initially plays Graham as a “what’s gong on?” everyman caught up in a mess he doesn’t quite get, but later on turns intoa fed up guy who just wants the madness to stop. Delores Del Rio gets a great part as Josette, a sexy French dancer with her odd partner, Gogo (Jack Durant), a man who likes gambling perhaps more than women. The film keeps throwing Josette and Howard together in some brief scenes and there’s a whisper of romance between them as she has no idea he’s a married man and he’s an interesting enough character to draw her affections. You can see poor Howard weakening, but it seems he never gives in (which is probably a good thing for the both of them by the climax).
Welles pops up in what amounts to an extended cameo as Colonel Haki of the Secret Police and between that makeup that makes him look a bit Stalin-esque and the accent he delivers his dialogue in, it’s a total hoot of a performance. It’s also amusing because you may feel Haki isn’t at all trustworthy when you first see him, but he turns up for the finale true to his every word. If there’s an issue with the film it’s that it seems TOO short for its own good. Some of the plot could have been more fleshed out, as this is one of those films where if you got up to use the restroom or get a tasty beverage during a key scene in Istanbul or on the ship, you’d come back and be almost completely lost by the time you got back unless someone filled you in.
Credited to director Norman Foster, Welles’ trademark touches are all over the movie in small and large ways. The scene above has plenty of details that seem to have been guided or discussed with Foster by Welles. Look at the magician’s assistant’s feet and how she’s en pointe during the intro of the doomed prestidigitator, the up-angle shot of the cook and how so much happens as the magician whips out trick after trick in what looks like a single take. I’d say that’s a Welles shot right there.
A few other scenes spring to mind including Graham’s escape and later, the end sequence where Graham, his would-be assassin, a Nazi agent and eventually, Colonel Haki get involved in the aforementioned rainy business. Of course, Foster WAS a very talented director in his own right (Kiss the Blood off My Hands, Woman on the Run), and it’s not at all unusual for one director to emulate another one’s style.
Amusingly enough, one could also comment that perhaps Welles should have stayed around to direct Journey into Fear as a longer project and not just write and produce it. The project he was involved in that (allegedly) kept him away from the camera here was “It’s All True”, the aborted documentary/docu-drama started in 1941 but never “completed” until a grand restoration effort some 52 years later by other hands. Of course, one can’t predict the future at all, so I guess it’s just great to have more Welles and not less at the end of the day.
Roy Webb’s music is excellent overall, but from the first time I saw this film a few years back I’ve always wondered what Bernard Herrmann could have done with this little gem of a movie. My wishful thinking aside, this one’s a great little noir that seems to get overlooked by some and is well worth tracking down. TCM screens this from time to time, so if you happen to have that channel as part of your cable subscription, make sure to check out a showing when you can and have a few friend over to share this one with. It’s short, sweet and should make you appreciate Welles a bit more (whether he directed this or not).