Fear is the Key

Fear is the Key

Growing up in the ’80s, one of my abiding memories is of the shelves of video rental shops groaning under the weight of underwhelming Alastair MacLean films. Sure, this was the guy who wrote Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare – stone cold classics both – but the rest of his adaptations were shoddily put together or just plain dull. Little did I realise that amongst that tat was an undiscovered gem: Fear is the Key.

The opening shots are beautiful, crisp and mysterious: Barry Newman sits alone in a cobweb-enveloped shack in the middle of an empty field attempting radio contact with an unseen pilot. The plane crashes as he listens in helplessly and we fade to black on a broken man.

When we see him again it’s a few years later and he’s wandering around the Louisiana bayou so listlessly that you begin to ask yourself where on earth this film might be going. Then the greatest car chase of all time starts and you forget all your doubts. Forget too the other pretenders to that title – Bullitt, Ronin, French Connection, To Live & Die in LA – this comfortably out drives them all.

Indeed, if you’ll allow the car chase indulgence for a moment, what is so impressive about the sequence is the authenticity of it. The way the car gets banged up, especially after a rather spectacular jump resulting in busted suspension, crumpled bonnet and broken rear fender you can really see that Newman is fighting to keep the vehicle both on the road and ahead of the cops. Nor does the director go overboard with the pursuing cars, ie taking the Blues Brothers / Smokey and the Bandit route of trashing legions of law enforcers. There are only four cop cars in pursuit – not all concurrent – and these are all dealt with incredibly realistically.

Post chase we are introduced to an impressive field of acting talent including a young and menacing Ben Kingsley who, with a full head of black hair and a nicely fitted suit, looks not unlike a dashing John Cazale. The plot itself rattles along pretty effortlessly as it slowly reveals Newman’s plan as a very complex long con which, though slightly disjointed, moves toward one of the quirkiest film endings I can remember seeing.

Highly recommended.

Fear is the Key – directed by Michael Tuchner (1972)

In Short
A decent Alistair MacLean adaptation for once.
Best car chase in cinema history, and certainly one of the weirdest endings.
Oh, and Ben Kingsley has hair.
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