Fear is the Key (1972)

Most movie versions of Alistair MacLean's novels fall into a few categories: high-profile hits (The Guns of NavaroneWhere Eagles Dare); dreary messes (The Secret Ways, Bear Island); or decent lesser-known adaptations (The Satan BugWhen 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 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 device.

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 Love.

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.


♦♦♦♦♦♦♦ (7 out of 10)