Forgotten Flix

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Peter’s Retro Rewind: Fear Is The Key (1972)

Fear is the key movie posterby Peter Nielsen

If I mention the name Alistair MacLean, you all know who I mean, right? He’s the author of 28-29 novels in the action-thriller genre. I’ll throw a couple of titles at you to jolt your memory… Breakhart Pass, The Way to Dusty Death, Caravan to Vaccares, Force 10 from Navarone, Where Eagles Dare, The Golden Rendezvous, Fear Is The Key… Do I need to go on?

I’ll bet many a young boy has read at least one or two of these. I know I have! I’ve always been a fan of Mr. MacLean’s novels and have a bunch of them on my bookshelves– 14 to be exact! I’m not 100% sure, but I think the first one I read was actually Fear Is The Key. Well, either that one or Ice Station Zebra! Both of them are personal favorites. Fear Is The Key is one of those I devoured from cover to cover.

Vyland and Royale

Vyland and Royale

I know it sounds like a damn cliché, but I just couldn’t put it down, that’s how good it was. Alistair MacLean has a very visual way of writing which translates very well to the big screen. I suppose that’s one of the reasons that so many of his novels has been made into successful movies. Another reason is of course that they’re damn good!

Fear Is The Key opens on a man sitting in front of a short-wave radio. He’s in contact with a small plane which is carrying a valuable cargo, and I’m not just talking about the man’s wife and child. All of a sudden it’s joined by another plane which, without warning, attacks it and shoots it down. When we next see the man, John Talbot, it’s about three years later.

Talbot, who’s played very well by Barry Newman (Vanishing Point, City On Fire), is a bitter man, determined to get his revenge on those who killed his family. At a gas-station, where he stops for gas and something to eat and drink, he gets into trouble with the police and ends up in a court-room. The judge does a background check on Talbot and finds out that he has a history of violent behavior. Talbot, realizing he’s facing a long prison sentence, grabs a gun, kidnaps an onlooker and blasts his way out of the courthouse. Once outside he steals a red Ford Gran Torino and drives off.

The ice-cold killer, Royale (with cheese).

The ice-cold killer, Royale (with cheese).

What follows is, roughly, a 15-minute car chase with a small break for a ferry-ride in the middle. The woman he’s kidnapped is Sarah Ruthven, daughter of a wealthy oil tycoon. She’s played by Suzy Kendall (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage) who was married to Dudley Moore for a couple of years. Sarah’s dad has put out a reward to anyone who can bring his daughter back to him, along with her kidnapper.

This is where ex-cop Herman Jablonsky, played by Dolph Sweet (worked mostly in TV), comes in. He manages to catch up with Talbot and Sarah, overpower Talbot and take them both back to her father. Once there he thinks he can just collect the ransom and be off. Mr. Ruthven and his associates however, have other plans for them. Well, to be honest… it’s not so much Mr. Ruthven as it is his associates.

He’s actually being used just like the others. He’s in cahoots with the crooked “businessman” Vyland and his deadly henchman Royale, but not voluntarily. Vyland wants the cargo that’s in the hold of a wreck which is lying at the bottom of the sea, and since Talbot is a deep water salvage expert, Vyland needs his help… and he’s not asking!

Sarah and Talbot taking a lazy, Sunday drive...

Sarah and Talbot taking a lazy, Sunday drive…

There’s a huge plot-twist in Fear Is The Key which I’m not going to go into. You’ll have to watch the movie yourselves to find out, but it’s a good’un! The last 15 minutes or so… intense as hell! It’s basically a classic Alistair MacLean-movie with great action, nerve-wrecking suspense and a little dry humor thrown in for good measure, and hell… you can’t go wrong with that, can you?

The cast is also a superb one, especially our two main antagonists played by John Vernon and Ben Kingsley and oh, wow… where do I begin with these two? You’ve probably seen John Vernon in Dirty Harry, Animal House, Savage Streets or Killer Klowns from Outer Space to name just a handful of his, almost, 200 credits on Imdb. He plays Vyland in this and there’s something about his eyes, a little glint that makes you not know if he’s kidding or not. But make no mistake about it, he’s deadly serious!

Ben Kingsley as Royale, on the other hand… there’s no mistaking what he wants to do! He’s an ice-cold, professional killer and, holy shit, is he scary. Ben Kingsley (with hair) is awesome in this role, which was actually his debut on the big screen. After this he worked in television and theater until returning to the big screen ten years later in 1982 with the movie Gandhi, which won him an Academy Award.

And that's just the way it was in Hazard County...

And that’s just the way it was in Hazard County…

And the rest is, so to speak, history! He’s appeared in so many great movies and I’m not even going to delve into them here. You’ll just have to check for yourselves!

Fear Is The Key has got an awesome musical score too. It’s very much a typical 70’s score and I just love it. It was composed by Roy Budd, a self-taught musician, who apparently was somewhat of a child prodigy. His first score was for the violent western Soldier Blue and as far as I know he kind of “conned” his way into that one.

He put together a little sample of music by other very well known composers and sent to the director. He didn’t choose any of their famous pieces, so as not to arouse suspicion. The director liked what he heard and never found out.  He has since gone on to do the music for the original Get Carter as well as The Sea Wolves, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger and The Wild Geese to name a few.

And it’s on this musical note I’ll leave you this time. Please leave your thoughts in the comment section below!

Oh, and by the way..? Don’t you just love how, in the 70’s, car-tires would screech on any surface? Until next time, my friends…


About Peter Nielsen

Peter was born in Denmark in 1968, but moved to Sweden at the age of six, (not by himself of course), and has lived there ever since. He’s married and has five children, so spare time is somewhat of a luxury. His main interests in life, apart from his family, are long walks, books and movies. Any movie! He has preferences, but he’s not particular as long as it's good or... so bad it's good... he just LOVES MOVIES!