Journey Into Fear (1943): Oriental Intrigue

Journey Into Fear (1943)

An hapless US munitions engineer visiting the Levant is the target of Gestapo spies
(1943 RKO. Directed by Norman Foster 79 mins restored version)
Unreleased preview version 91 mins

A Mercury Theater Production
Cinematography by Karl Struss
Screenplay by Joseph Cotten, Richard Collins, Ben Hecht and Orson Welles
Novel by Eric Ambler
Original Music by Roy Webb and Rex Dunn
Art Direction by Albert S. D’Agostino and Mark-Lee Kirk

Joseph Cotten – Howard Graham
Dolores del Rio – Josette Martel
Orson Welles – Colonel Haki
Ruth Warrick – Mrs. Stephanie Graham

The official historical record has it that Orson Welles simply played a role in this movie, but original sources confirm that the film owes a lot to his creative genius. He had a part in writing the screenplay and in the direction. As Borde and Chaumeton say in their book A Panorama of Film Noir (1955):

“Journey into Fear, or ‘how fear makes people heroic’, bears the signature of Norman Foster, to be sure. But then Orson Welles collaborated on the scenario, and the exceptional breeziness and subtlety of his style emerge in the precision of the shooting script and the plastic beauty of the photography. Basing the film on a spy case that’s only a pretext and visibly turns into a hoax, Foster and Welles have rediscovered the chief laws of the noir genre: an oneiric plot; strange suspects; a silent killer in thick glasses, a genuine tub of lard buttoned up in a raincoat, who before each murder plays an old, scratched record on an antique phonograph; and the final bit of bravura, which takes place on the facade of the grand hotel of Batum. We may admire Orson Welles, with graying hair and mustache, in one of those minor, easy-going roles in which he excels: the Turkish Colonel Haki, head of the intelligence service and a womanizer.”

After mutilating The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) the year before, the studio bosses at RKO unsheathed their hatchets and hacked the completed Journey Into Fear from 91 minutes to 69 minutes for the US version and 71 minutes for the European release, and this was after various cuts from the screenplay required by the Breen office and The Legion of Decency. The 79 minute version currently available is a partial restoration, and the Welles.Net archive has a report of a further restoration. This report also provides some fascinating background on which scenes were cut.

The censors of the time, as from time immemorial, didn’t want audiences to have any fun, so as well cutting most political talk, they also had removed many scenes with ironic sexual references and any mention of religion. Still Journey Into Fear survives as a fascinating movie with moody atmospherics, exotic locales, sexy dames, weird villains, politics, wisdom, philosophy, and a wry humor.

A flawed gem, the picture is in a class of its own, and reminds me of John Huston’s glorious Beat The Devil (1953). Both movies have one guiding tenet: life is meant to be irreverent fun!

The beautiful opening shot before the credits that cranes up and peers into the window of a dingy hotel room at night and ends only after 80 seconds when the occupant leaves, and the magnificent climax on the outside ledges of another hotel at night during a rain-storm, are signature Welles. Welles has been quoted as saying that during filming, while the job of direction was given to Norman Foster, scenes were directed by “whoever was nearest the camera”. Bosley Crowther wrote in the NY Times on the film’s release: “that final duel in the beating rain on the ledge of a Batum hotel Mr. Foster [sic] has directed a melodramatic climax that is breathless and intense.”

Journey Into Fear (1943)

Those familiar with the early novels of Englishman, Eric Ambler, will know that the on-screen person of Joseph Cotton is a perfect fit for the typical Ambler hero: a timid middle-class everyman who becomes unwittingly embroiled in a nefarious and dangerous caper where he discovers guile and courage he never thought himself capable of, and after his adventure, is happy to return to the succour of a comfortable obscurity. Welles himself has a rollicking good-time hamming it up as a womanising Turkish intelligence officer. Dolores Del Rio is wonderful as a cabaret singer with sexy exotic charm, loyalty, and a calm worldly-wise aplomb: she is the perfect foil to the shy and unromantic Cotten.

The art direction for the early cabaret scene where Cotton is made to realise he is the target of a hit-man is beautifully evocative, and the whole sequence is immensely entertaining. When the action quickly moves to a tramp steamer, the sense of claustrophobia is deftly handled. To quote Crowther again: “The fright of the ordnance expert is constantly underscored by an uncanny use of light and distorted shadows in the ratty corridors of the ship; in a blacked-out cabin one senses the terror of the hidden expert as footsteps echo from the pitch-dark screen”.  Supporting roles that impinge on the protagonist have significant dialog and their characterisations are deeply drawn and well-acted. These characters also act as a philosophical chorus in scenes that while having a peripheral connection to the action, are anchored with elegant ruminations on god, war, love, death, politics, and marriage.

This is a connoisseur’s film: for those who rejoice in its eccentricities, wit, and romantic melodrama, while lamenting what has been lost to the barbarians.

11 thoughts on “Journey Into Fear (1943): Oriental Intrigue”

  1. A truly beautiful review, Tony, you have precisely cut through the historical gauze surrounding this picture–while pointing to some of the details of Welles molding the film to a significant degree–and given this often underrated, short (I believe just approximately 70 minutes) gem, the fine and exquisite treatment it deserves. This was so good I feel as though it tempered my injury. 🙂


  2. Thank you so much, Alexander. You have made my day!

    I struggled for a few days with the approach I should adopt before before putting pen to paper. The version I watched was 79 minutes and screened on late-nite TV by our public broadcaster.


  3. And I second the motion, this is a passionate review and a call for reassessment. I know the film well, and I agree with what you say here, but as I am leaving the house now, I will reserve further commentary for the morning, when I will examine it thoroughly. But this does look like great stuff!


  4. Outstanding and infectious revisit, that rightly acknowledges that this is a “connoisseur’s film”. Over the years it has admittedly been either misunmderstood or reviled, as for example Pauline Kael says: “This labyrinthe spy story about smuggling munitions out of Turkey is loaded down with terror hocus-pocus and high-toned conversations. It’s a half-hearted, almost–fey–film, with a lot of dark atmosphere and unusual camera angles that don’t amount to much; the pacing is uncertain, and the suspense doesn’t build. Orson Welles, who appears as the Turkish police chief Colonel Haki, is credited, along with Joseph Cotten, for the rather eccentric adaptation of the Eric Ambler novel.”
    Yet, I think Tony has encapsulated the revised position on this film: “These characters also act as a philosophical chorus in scenes, that while having a peripheral connection to the action, are anchored with elegant ruminations on god, war, love, death, politics and marriage.” Beautifully written and profound.
    Sad, that like THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, this was seriously mutilated by the censors, negating what could have been a film masterpiece. But I agree with you that as is, it still is a formidable work of cinema. Cotton is indeed “a perfect fit,” and both Del Rio and Welles are memorable.


  5. I like Journey Into Fear, but it’s a bit of a mess in places, and I’m not sure that the longer version would be so much clearer. It’s not remotely to be mourned in the same category of Ambersons. That was mutilation, Journey is merely pruning. Excellent statement for the defence from Tony, though, and the film should be on DVD in English speaking lands, rather than in the so-so French DVD that is the only viable option at the mo.


  6. Thank you Sam and Allan for your comments.

    I think one’s view is colored by the version one has seen. Apparently, the original 71 min European version differed from the original 69 min US version not only in length but included different scenes as well. The version I have based my review on is the longer 79 minute version.

    Allan, after watching the movie, I consulted your good friend Halliwell (6th edn), who gave the 71 min version 3 stars!!! He says inter alia: “Highly enjoyable impressionist melodrama supervised by Orson Welles and full of his touches and excesses ” .

    To be fair Allan, I made no comparisons with Ambersons other than to say that they were both hacked. Having said this, I must say that one’s fondness for a film is not necessarily directly connected with its cinematic qualities, the depth of its vision, or the audacity of the director. Movies are like falling in love, there may be other prospective partners who are more attractive or intelligent or emotionally stable, but you love the one you love. I love this movie, just like I love Casablanca or Beat The Devil, but I don’t love Ambersons – there is an emotional connection that is beyond critical analysis.


  7. I must say I love that “emotional connection” argument you present at the end there Tony. It really says it all, and in a sense it resists criticism. “You love the one you love” and that’s that.

    I have always had such a feeling through the years for “Goodbye, Mr. Chips.” (Sam Wood; 1939)


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