Fear is the Key (1972)
Most movie versions of Alistair MacLean's novels fall into a few categories: high-profile hits (The Guns of Navarone, Where
Eagles Dare); dreary messes (The Secret Ways,
Bear Island); or decent lesser-known adaptations
(The Satan Bug, When Eight Bells Toll).
Fear is the Key falls into the third category — in fact, I'd say it heads that category. It's a
craftsmanlike, punchy take on this unique book, in which the first third of the story is not what it seems.
While I was aware the film existed, I'd only seen it offered on PAL-format DVD's, which I'm unequipped to watch.
A site reader kindly pointed me to the film's
Amazon.com listing, where it is offered
for sale in digital format. I wasted no time in laying out the $9.99 and downloading it onto my TiVo
Fear is the Key is among the roughly one-third of MacLean's novels written in the first person. Filming
such a story is harder because the viewer can't get inside the protagonist's head as a reader can. Typically, his
first-person stories lose a lot in translation to the screen, as that person's plans and fears and psychological
battles are less transparent (a flaw that afflicts Golden
Rendezvous and Puppet on a Chain, for example).
Fear is the Key lost less of its flavor, largely because much of the protagonist's thoughts and narration
concerned technical aspects of boats, oil rigs, buoyancy systems, and so forth. It was hard to slog through some of
those details in the book; the movie runs smoother without them.
While most of the alterations between book and movie are sensible time-savers, others make the viewer wonder.
Some changes seem pointless, such as setting the action in Louisiana rather than Florida, or altering several
characters' first names. Others detract more from the movie's authenticity: a scene in which protagonist John
Montague Talbot states his name and plans on an open radio frequency (he used code phrases in the book); a
character who is a high-strung drug addict in the book but merely chews gum rapidly in the film; Talbot asking for
details of the villains' salvage operation (the fact that he didn't in the book was a significant clue that the
villains missed); the lead female, Sarah Ruthven, showing a violent urge toward a bad guy (her reluctance in the
book to clobber someone nearly cost Talbot).
The most significant omission is a character who greatly aids Talbot in the book — and who also serves as
Sarah's romantic interest. (Given his absence in the movie, I figured Talbot would get the dame; I hope it's not a
spoiler to reveal that it didn't turn out the way I expected.)
Many parts of the film, however, are gratifyingly authentic. The opening scene rings entirely true. The second
one, involving a courthouse, starts out unexpectedly but then becomes more familiar. A car chase, with Talbot
trying to escape while holding Miss Kendall hostage, actually extends the book's description, occupying a
staggering chunk of screen time. (That may be a relic of the early-'70s era in which this film was made.) By the
concluding scene, in which Talbot uses fear (hence the title) to extract confessions from the bad guys, the viewer
realizes that this has been a worthwhile rendering of MacLean's vision.
The cast is generally strong. Barry Newman, star of the mid-'70s TV drama series "Petrocelli," shows a
believable toughness as man-of-action Talbot. Dolph Sweet, a frequent '70s and '80s TV actor, is very watchable as
Talbot's New-York-raised ally. The main baddies are competently played by John Vernon (despicable Dean Wormer in
Animal House, who radiates menace nicely here despite oddly mispronouncing the name "Ruthven" several
times) and the under-used (in this movie) Ben Kingsley. Little impression was made, though, by lead actress Suzy
Kendall, perhaps best known as a young teacher who gets involved with Sidney Poitier in To Sir With
More technical aspects of the film are high quality, from atmospheric music tracks to subtly but effectively lit
dark scenes. While the oil rig where much of the later action occurs is smaller than in the book, it's believable.
Talbot descends a long series of rungs into a convincingly rust-flecked, claustrophobic metal cylinder that leads
underwater; it was indentical on screen to my book-formed mental image. Even a privacy-warning sign concealing the
baddies' operation is worded precisely as in the book. Such attention to detail is gratifying.
Had I reviewed it on its standalone merits, I might not have enjoyed Fear is the Key as much. However,
screenwriter Robert Carrington (who also wrote the classic film Wait Until Dark) and director Michael
Tuchner did an admirable job of translating first-person MacLean into a pleasingly authentic (though far from
verbatim) film. Waiting so long to see this movie was frustrating ... but it was worth the wait.
out of 10)