Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter revisits the still sadly underseen Alistair MacLean adaptation, Fear Is the Key.
Actor Barry Newman passed away this weekend at the age of ninety-two after a film & television career that ran for half a century. He starred in dozens of films and shows, but the role he’s best remembered for is that of Kowalski in 1971’s Vanishing Point. The film made him a star, if only for a short time, and remains an immensely popular action/thriller. As great as it is, though, my preference is for the ride that came one year later. Fear Is the Key doesn’t get nearly the love of that other title, but from its epic, first-act car chase onward, it’s one hell of an entertaining watch.
Australian label Imprint Films released this gem to Blu-ray last year — its worldwide debut on Blu — and it includes a commentary track with two film historians. Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for Fear Is the Key.
Fear Is the Key (1972)
Commentators: Kim Newman (film historian, no relation), Sean Hogan (author)
1. The first adaptation of an Alistair MacLean novel hit screens in 1961 (The Guns of Navarone), and twelve more followed over the next three decades. His popularity peaked in the 60s and 70s to the point that studio execs were giving him story outlines which he would then simultaneously write as both novels and screenplays.
2. The incredible car chase in the film is part of the source novel, but it’s greatly expanded for the film as evidenced by it being spread across over ten minutes. It was crafted by stunt coordinator/driver Carey Loftin who took on the same duties in Vanishing Point. His filmography is endlessly impressive and includes everything from Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Spartacus (1960) to Bullitt (1968) and The French Connection (1971). He’s also the driver in both Duel (1971) and Christine (1983)!
3. Kim Newman credits films like this and Puppet on a Chain (1970), another MacLean adaptation, for inspiring the James Bond films to up their game when it came to vehicular chase scenes.
4. Spoiler if you haven’t watched the film yet, but John Talbot (Newman) turns out to be a good guy simply pretending to be bad in order to reach certain people. The character in the book takes that deception to another level by wearing a disguise consisting of bold red hair and a vicious scar.
5. Director Michael Tuchner made his feature debut with 1971’s Villain, an underrated British crime film, but while his television career flourished he only made six feature films in total.
6. This is the film debut of Ben Kingsley — he plays a gun-toting tough guy — and he didn’t return to the big screen until ten years later in 1982’s Gandhi.
7. MacLean’s writing idol was reportedly Raymond Chandler, and that inspiration comes clear once the film hits the midpoint with the big house, the runaway daughter, the peculiar antagonist, and its twisted little detour at the heart of something bigger.
8. Kim Newman describes this as a mid-range thriller, the likes of which we don’t see enough of these days. “The last one I can think of is Michael Bay’s Ambulance.” He’s not wrong.
9. MacLean became quite wealthy as a writer, but he switched careers in 1963 and became a hotelier for a few years only to lose it all and return to the typewriter.
10. They reference a handful of common themes and images across MacLean’s tales including radios, villains falling to their doom rather than being directly killed by the protagonist, macabre beats in the middle of a more traditional thriller, and more.
11. Kim Newman finds Breakheart Pass (1975) to be an odd duck in MacLean’s filmography as it’s the writer’s “attempt to do a western, but it’s a western made up of bits and pieces of other Alistair MacLean stories.”
12. MacLean was convinced to write Where Eagles Dare (1978) as an original screenplay, but he was unhappy with the epic body count in the finished product as it was intended as an anti-war film. Hogan says the writer was against violence in general, and Kim Newman adds that “a lot of people who’d been through a war, were.”
13. General screenwriting advice suggests that Act One you get stuck up a tree, Act Two you get stuck further up the tree, and Act Three you get down from the tree, “what MacLean does is Act Two over and over again, and that is a great model for action/suspense.”
14. Talbot scuffles with a bad guy at 1:20:00 and watches as the man accidentally falls off the oil rig. In the novel, the man is more than a generic thug — he’s the drug-addicted son of the big bad (played by the great John Vernon here).
15. In the novel, Vyland (Vernon) throws himself off the oil rig choosing suicide over imprisonment. Here he’s shot by a desperate Ben Kingsley.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“This was made during the two or three years where Barry Newman was a star.”
“Another character who isn’t quite what he seems, sort of a MacLean staple.”
“This is a film, like all early 70s films, that speaks to the spectacular age of fashion.”
“Alistair MacLean does seem to have much more sympathy with rich people.”
“I don’t think I’ve met many women who are big Alistair MacLean fans, he’s a real bloke writer.”
“The Guns of Navarone was made in a period where you could just about pass it off as a serious, important film rather than a romp which it blatantly was.”
“As of this recording he’s still alive…”
Fear Is the Key remains a fantastic ride with a great chase, some wild story turns, and a powerfully sedate finale. The commentary doesn’t touch too much on Barry Newman beyond his brief status as a leading man and his appeal to mothers everywhere, but both Kim Newman and Sean Hogan share some interesting facts about the other talents involved. Their knowledge is especially heavy on writer Alistair MacLean — to the point that I’m planning to work my way through all fourteen films based on his writings.
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.