Today, Fear is the Key. At the height of his popularity, Scottish novelist Alistair MacLean found himself in Hollywood as several of his adventure thrillers were turned into movies (some of which he had adapted for the screen himself). Some of the best known film adaptations of his works include The Guns of Navarone (1961), The Satan Bug (1965), Ice Station Zebra (1968), Where Eagles Dare (also 1968) and Breakheart Pass (1976). One of the more obscure film adaptations of his works was Fear is the Key, which would also be the film debut of a future Oscar-winning actor, Sir Ben Kingsley. Released theatrically by Paramount and previously released on Region Free Blu-ray by Imprint in 2022, Arrow Video has licensed the movie for its US Blu-ray debut.
The Production: 4/5
Wandering into a sleepy Louisiana town near the mouth of the Mississippi River, mysterious drifter John Talbot (Barry Newman) is arrested after picking a fight with the local police; when it’s discovered by the presiding judge at his trial that he has outstanding warrants for bank robbery and murder, Talbot escapes with Sarah Ruthven (Suzy Kendall) as his captive. However, nothing is what it seems, as Talbot and Sarah are soon picked up by a mysterious man named Jablonsky (Dolph Sweet), taken to the mansion of Sarah’s oil tycoon father where another mysterious man named Vyland (John Vernon) hires Talbot for an unspecified job utilizing a submersible from an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico. There, deceptions and plots are brought to light as it’s discovered why Talbot went through all the trouble to get to the platform and the bottom of the Gulf…
Underrated when compared to other film adaptations of Alistair MacLean’s works, Fear is the Key is still very much in the mold of the white-knuckle thriller while it also deviates from MacLean’s usual M.O. of the international adventure (largely due to the fact that this was a more modestly budgeted affair compared to the likes of The Guns of Navarone or Where Eagles Dare). With some slight alterations to the source material – like a change in scenery from Florida to Louisiana while also jettisoning the first-person style narrative and some slight name changes – screenwriter Michael Carrington keeps the story’s heart intact while also providing the film with a sturdy foundation for director Michael Tuchner (in his sophomoric directorial effort) to build off of visually. For that, Tuchner has the contributions of cinematographer Alex Thomson to capture the sweltering southeastern Louisiana locations in their rustic beauty and the combination of stunt coordinators Carey Loftin and Joie Chitwood Jr. for the film’s most notable set piece: a 20-minute car chase through the bayous as Talbot escapes police custody (a chase scene that can hold its own with The French Connection and Bullitt); composer Roy Budd also should be commended here for his propulsive score. Finally, Tuchner manages to wrest some decent performances from his cast to bring MacLean’s thriller to life. In the end, Fear is the Key is a solidly constructed thriller that has fallen through the radar over the years but is absolutely worth checking out; one final note: it should be mentioned that MacLean’s works – including this movie adaptation – have served as a primary influence on John Wick screenwriter Derek Kolstad.
Fresh off of his best known film role in Vanishing Point (1971), Barry Newman acquits himself well in the lead as the complex Talbot; his other best known role was that of defense lawyer Anthony J. “Tony” Petrocelli, which he played in Sidney J. Furie’s The Lawyer (1970) and the TV series Petrocelli – which earned him both Golden Globe and Emmy Award nominations – that ran for two seasons from 1974 to 1976. Better known for her appearances in Italian genre films during the 1970’s – including Dario Argento’s debut directorial film The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) – Suzy Kendall has a decent part as the woman whose “kidnapping” is part of a larger plot to flush out the real villains here; John Vernon adds to his roster of notable villainous parts as the mysterious Vyland, who becomes a focal point in Talbot’s emerging plans that come to light in the climax. In his film debut, Sir Ben Kingsley plays Royale, a henchman of Vyland who’s also caught in the web of Talbot’s surprise twist; when he would return to the silver screen for his second film role 10 years later, it would result in him winning a Best Actor Oscar for portraying Mahatma Gandhi in Richard Attenborough’s Best Picture winning biopic. Rounding out the cast here are Dolph Sweet as Jablonsky, Ray McAnally as the oil baron Ruthven, Peter Marinker as the unhinged Vyland henchman Larry, Elliot Sullivan as the Louisiana judge who uncovers Talbot’s “criminal past”, John Alderson as Tanner, Roland Brand as a Louisiana deputy, Tony Anholt as an FBI agent, Hal Galili as Cibatti, Ernie Heldman as the bartender at the roadside gas station and James Berwick in an uncredited and unspecified role.
3D Rating: NA
The film is presented in its original 2:35:1 aspect ratio, taken from likely the same HD transfer used for the Region Free Imprint Blu-ray release. Film grain, fine details and color palette appear to be faithfully represented here with minor cases of scratches, tears and dirt present; however, this transfer appears to have had some additional digital cleanup done here, but nothing that affects the quality of the image. In the end, this release does surpass the previous Imprint Blu-ray and is likely the best the movie will ever look on home video.
The film’s original mono soundtrack is presented on a PCM track for this release. Dialogue, sound mix and Roy Budd’s music score are all presented faithfully with minimal cases of distortion like crackling, popping and hissing present. Overall, this Blu-ray release is likely the best the movie will ever sound on home video.
Special Features: 4/5
Commentary by filmmaker/critic Howard S. Berger – Newly recorded for this release, Berger examines how this movie subverts a few of the tropes Alistair MacLean established in his works and subsequent film adaptations as well as some information about the cast and crew involved in this film.
A Different Kind of Spy Game (23:33) – Film critic and author Scout Tafoya looks at how this film compares to other film adaptations of Alistair MacLean’s works as well as its place in the 1970’s action cinema in this new visual essay.
Fear in the Key of Budd (16:34) – Music historian Neil Brand shares his appreciation of composer Roy Budd and breaks down his work on this movie in this brand new featurette.
Producing the Action (29:55) – Associate producer Gavrik Losey – the son of director Joseph Losey – reflects on working for the movie and how he was able to get the offshore oil platform shooting location for the film in this archival interview from the 2022 Imprint Blu-ray.
Bayou to Bray (39:30) – Also carried over from the Imprint Blu-ray, a look at the making of the movie from shooting on location in Louisiana to shooting in the Bray studios; among those interviewed here include assistant production accountant Paul Tucker, camera assistant John Golding, sound recordist Anthony Jackson and third assistant director Peter Cotton.
U.K. Theatrical Trailer (2:16)
Double sided foldout poster featuring newly commissioned artwork by Nathanael Marsh and the original theatrical poster art
Booklet featuring and essay by filmmaker/critic Sean Hogan
The lone casualty from the Imprint Blu-ray is a commentary track by film historian Kim Newman and Hogan.
Despite being passed over by critics and audiences in America – the film found more success in the UK and Europe – upon initial release, Fear is the Key is still a very well made adaptation of the Alistair MacLean novel that its absolutely worth a reappraisal here in the states. Arrow Video has likely delivered the definitive Blu-ray release of the movie here, with a solid HD transfer and a solid slate of new and legacy special features (although a commentary track on the Imprint Blu-ray could not be carried over here). Very highly recommended.
Mychal has been on the Home Theater Forum’s reviewing staff since 2018, with reviews numbering close to 300. During this time, he has also been working as an assistant manager at The Cotton Patch – his family’s fabric and quilting supplies business in Keizer, Oregon. When not working at reviewing movies or working at the family business, he enjoys exploring the Oregon Coast, playing video games and watching baseball in addition to his expansive collection of movies on DVD, Blu-ray and UHD, totalling over 3,000 movies.
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