Screen Reviews
Fear Is the Key

Fear Is the Key

directed by Michael Tuchner

starring Barry Newman, Ben Kingsley, John Vernon

Arrow Video

Based on the 1961 novel by Alistair MacLean, Fear Is the Key is the type of thriller that could only have come out in the 1970s. The film’s action is as gritty as faces of the men who populate it. There are no pretty boys in this cast that includes Barry Newman (Vanishing Point, 1971), John Vernon (Animal House, 1978), Dolph Sweet (Sisters, 1972), and an impossibly young Ben Kingsley (Gandhi, 1982) in his first film role. The taut film, involving a personal vendetta and the search for $80 million in diamonds, had all the ingredients for a hit, but was a miss at the box office and vanished from the cultural landscape.

Fear Is the Key
courtesy of MVD Entertainment
Fear Is the Key

After getting into a fight with local cops in rural Louisiana, John Talbot (Barry Newman) escapes from court with beautiful heiress Sarah Ruthven. He gets caught and turned over to Sarah’s wealthy father. Soon it is revealed that the entire thing was a ruse to get Talbot an introduction to Sarah’s father, and most importantly to get in with Vyland (John Vernon), who needs Talbot’s expertise in salvaging a fortune in diamonds from a submerged airplane wreck in the depths of the Gulf of Mexico, and Talbot needs his chance to get revenge for the deaths of his family.

Fear Is the Key fits neatly with other testosterone-fueled car movies that dominated in the early to mid-1970s. A long car chase through the Louisiana bayou featuring a red 1972 Ford Gran Torino takes up much of the film’s opening act and deserves to be discussed alongside films like Vanishing Point, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), and The Getaway (1972). This is not a coincidence, as the film’s stunt coordinator was the legendary driver and stunt coordinator Carey Loftin, also the stunt coordinator of those classics. Loftin has nearly 400 films to his credit as coordinator or driver, including The Road Warrior (1981), Smokey and the Bandit (1977), and multiple Dirty Harry (1971) films.

After the freewheeling, backwoods action of the opening set piece, the film settles into a far more claustrophobic but suspenseful tone as the action shifts to an oil rig and a submarine 1,200 feet below the surface. The second half action is far more about wits than fists but retains a bubbly tension. Journeyman director Michael Tuchner, who is better remembered for his British television work, is aided greatly by a good script, gripping actors, and an effective score by Roy Budd (Get Carter, 1971). Everyone seems to be on board with the kind of film they are making. While not a classic, Fear Is the Key is a terrific Sunday afternoon thriller and a hidden gem worthy of rediscovery.

Arrow Video


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