Some movies deserve rediscovery; they fall through the cracks for some reason (bad distribution, poor box office, dated elements) and need someone (a Tarantino or Pauline Kael) to prop them back up into the public consciousness. Some Forgotten Movies aren't exactly all that great to begin with and some are just merely "good" and nothing more. Some good parts to them, some lackluster, but all in all they work even if it isn't the best thing you've ever seen. I think this is the reason Michael Tuchner's FEAR IS THE KEY has fallen off the radar; it's got a fantastic opening, then a troubled midsection, followed by a workable resolution. It has an excellent cast (with one glaring exception), a classy production and it feels like a much more solid piece of entertainment than it actually is. You finish it feeling more or less satisfied with what you've seen and then you move on from it; because it's not better than it should be it doesn't exactly stay with you, but you remember liking it well enough. No wonder it's a forgotten movie.
FEAR IS THE KEY is based on a novel by Alistair MacLean (sorry, it's got nothing to do with the Iron Maiden song), who is usually known for huge adventure stories that take place on several continents and feature the fate of the free world at stake about three or four times in the course of the story. There have actually been some very good films made out of MacLean's novels (Brian Hutton's WHERE EAGLES DARE and J. Lee Thompson's THE GUNS OF NAVARONE being the best), so when I see his name pop up in the credits I think I have an idea just what to expect. What I am not expecting is a story about kidnapping and oil drilling set in Louisiana, but that's what FEAR IS THE KEY is, though I'm not holding that against it. In going over my research on the novel (the Wikipedia page, I mean) it seems like the movie is pretty faithful to it, but you certainly can't help but notice that the film makes a couple of concessions to early 70s cinema, though not in the form of gratuitous nudity or foul language but rather an extremely lengthy opening car chase. And an excellent opening car chase it is; what probably took up a few pages in MacLean's novel takes up about 15 minutes of screen time and it's an absolute blast to watch. The reason for the chase probably has about as much to do with the casting of Barry Newman, fresh off of VANISHING POINT, as the film's lead than it does anything else; they had to figure, "OK, we've got the VANISHING POINT guy, the VANISHING POINT audience will show, so why not give them a bit of VANISHING POINT?". The reasoning isn't to be faulted too much because they've come up with a killer car chase, blazing all around the back roads of Louisiana in a sweet red '72 Torino, that's expertly handled by Tuchner and his stunt team. It's an applause-worthy chase, and even when it's over the rush you get from it keeps FEAR IS THE KEY moving for a bit before it winds down and actually gets into the film's story, and as you can guess, that's when the film begins to bog down.
Without getting too much into it so I don't spoil it, FEAR IS THE KEY then becomes a bit of a hostage drama, then an espionage movie and finally a revenge movie and it's so over the map that while it certainly keeps you on your toes, you're kinda in, like, "wait, where are we now?" territory. Some of this works, however; I like the hostage stuff because you're still not sure of the direction of the rest of the film. The espionage stuff kinda lost me (wait, he's some kind of salvage expert?), but when they got to the revenge part I went with it and felt that they'd made it work enough for me to care. I know that I'm sounding quite vague, but I'd like you, the reader/viewer, to experience this one as blind as I did. I'd never heard of the film before, never seen it, so when a friend told me about it (it was just released on DVD in the U.K. in a bare-bones edition with a very nice widescreen transfer) I experienced it with very little idea of where it was going and I liked that. Maybe it didn't go into all the right directions, but it's still nice to not always have the road ahead of you be so crystal clear, you know? And there is a lot to like in the film, enough to recommend it with reservations on my end. Of course, Newman is a big plus, a solid lead and thanks to VANISHING POINT and a more than credible action hero; the guy should have had a bigger career than he did, but it was nice to see his late 90s comeback in THE LIMEY with FEAR IS THE KEY as a reminder that, yeah, the guy had what it took. Newman gets a good group of villains to go up against with John Vernon (in his pre-ANIMAL HOUSE days, when he gave really good performances) and none other than Ben Kingsley, in his film debut and no doubt testing the maters for SEXY BEAST 30 years later. Dolph Sweet also supplies some good support, but if there's a weak link in the cast it's Suzy Kendall as basically just the female lead; while there's no character for her to play, she does an excellent job of not playing it, which is to say she's awful. She doesn't drag the film down, but in looking around at some solid players doing their thing well and then watching her non-acting in the same scene you've got to wonder if Valarie Leon wasn't available or something. I know she was a bit of a name at the time, but... ah, what does it matter? Anyway, there's also a solid score by Roy Budd (available on CD) and the Louisiana locations (with exteriors filmed in the U.K.) are also pluses.
So yeah, FEAR IS THE KEY is a solid effort, but not my favorite film of the week, I don't mind saying. And yet, I felt the need to discuss it, because I think others will probably take to it and some may find it to be a new favorite. I don't know if it's going to end up on disc here anytime soon (Lionsgate has the rights), but if you can get an opportunity to check out the Region 2 disc, I say do so. It's not perfect, but it does have its pleasures.