Color, 1972, 104 mins. 49 secs.
Directed by Michael Tuchner
Starring Barry Newman, Suzy Kendall, John Vernon, Dolph Sweet, Ben Kingsley, Ray McAnally
Arrow Video (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Imprint (Blu-ray) (Australia RA HD), Optimum (DVD) (UK R2 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)

Thanks to big-budget productions Fear Is the Keyin the 1960s including The Guns of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra, and Fear Is the KeyWhere Eagles Dare, adventure novelist Alastair MacLean became a reliable brand name promising a mixture of exotic action and intriguing, whodunit-style plot twists. The 1970s didn't prove even remotely as successful at the box office with a number of European productions getting in on the action including Puppet on a Chain, the sorely underrated When Eight Bells Toll, and Caravan to Vaccares, plus outliers like Breakheart Pass, Golden Rendezvous, Force 10 from Navarone, and a limp decade capper with Bear Island. Based on a 1961 novel by MacLean (and retaining its odd title), 1972's Fear Is the Key is one of the very best of the '70s cycle from the author, actually improving on the book by excising an extraneous character and expertly translating its numerous whiplash surprise twists with great skill. Hot off of Vanishing Point, Barry Newman gets to take part in another spectacular car chase early on while Get Carter composer Roy Budd delivers another exciting, pop-flavored score with a powerful melancholy undercurrent. Virtually ignored in the U.S. but something of a minor cult item in Europe, it's a real action-mystery gem with two worthwhile Blu-ray releases now available on the market.

This is a film Fear Is the Keybest experienced with as little knowledge as possible, but here's a sketch for the uninitiated. On trial in Louisiana for his involvement in a bank robbery and the killing of a police officer, John Talbot (Newman) stages Fear Is the Keya dramatic escape in the courtroom and takes a young woman in the viewing area hostage, Sarah Ruthven (Torso's Kendall). After a lengthy pursuit, the duo end up connecting with Jablonsky (Gimme a Break!'s Sweet), apparently some sort of private detective. All three of them become entangled with a sinister businessman named Vyland (Vernon) who, along with his henchmen (including a young Ben Kingsley), is eager to enlist John in a perilous assignment involving an oil rig and a submersible. However, many things are not what they seem.

Very different from your standard MacLean fare, Fear Is the Key features an intriguing roster of characters with ambiguous motives and builds to a terrific, claustrophobic finale with an emotional punch that makes you reassess everything you've seen before, especially a brief, enigmatic prologue. Though he never caught on as a movie star and mostly stuck to doing TV guest bits, Newman is effective here and sells the ending well, while the rest of the cast (including a particularly slimy Vernon) also does fine work all around. The Deep South locales give it a bit of a change of pace for MacLean movies as well, tying this in with the wave of Southern chase movies to come like Live and Let Die and a slew of Burt Reynolds movies.

Picked up by Paramount for stateside release but handled now by Studiocanal almost everywhere else, Fear Is the Key has had a reasonable amount of representation on home video including several cropped VHS releases, a widescreen DVD in the U.K. from Optimum in 2007, and a variety of streaming options including a stint on The Criterion Channel. In 2022, Australia's Imprint released a Blu-ray from a Studiocanal-supplied master featuring Fear Is the KeyLPCM 2.0 mono audio with English SDH subtitles and a fine commentary Fear Is the Keyby Kim Newman and Sean Hogan (focusing a lot on MacLean and the British production angle). Video extras include "Producing the Action" (31m10s) with associate producer Gavrik Losey about his EMI and Kastner productions including this one including the craze for MacLean stories at the time and the challenges of putting together a movie that takes place largely on an oil rig. Then "Bayou to Bray" (41m15s) features crew members including assistant production accountant Paul Tucker, focus puller John Golding, sound mixer Anthony Jackson, actor Peter Marinker, third assistant director Peter Cotton, and standby property master Terry Wells sharing lots of tales from the set focusing on the difficulty of executing the numerous action scenes and working with the Louisiana locals. The U.S. trailer is also included. In 2024, Arrow Video brought the film U.S. Blu-ray, featuring a very similar transfer albeit with a Paramount logo instead of the Studiocanal one. It also shears a bit of extraneous horizontal info off of the sides but with no significant compositional changes, and it looks quite good all the same. A new commentary by Howard S. Berger does a skillful job of laying out the singular qualities of this adaptation while covering Kastner, the MacLean formula, the use of performance, revelation, and transformation in the story, and the layers of drama at play in a complex nature throughout. "Producing the Action" and "Bayou to Bray" are ported over from the Aussie release along with the trailer, while the video essay "A Different Kind of Spy Game" (23m33s) features author Scout Tafoya covering the elements that set this far apart from favorites like Where Eagles Dare and place it within a particularly turbulent, damaged, and disillusioned version of the cinematic U.S. Then in "Fear in the Key of Budd" (16m34s), film and music historian Neil Brand studies the great, dramatic Budd score within the composer's body of work at the time and the larger canvas of action scores (especially James Bond ones) around that time with an unexpected collection of instruments keeping it quite unique. The packaging for the first pressing comes with reversible sleeve options (with new art by Nathanael Marsh), a double-sided foldout poster, and an illustrated booklet with a new essay by Hogan.


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IMPRINT (Blu-ray)

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Reviewed on March 4, 2024