Journey Into Fear: A Fantastic Mess

(Check out my previous Orson Welles essay on The Lady From Shanghai if you haven’t already)

In 1939, on August 21st, Orson Welles, wunderkind, theatrical genius, and radio celebrity signed the greatest contract ever given by a Hollywood studio. RKO offered him a three-picture deal to write, produce, direct, and star in three pictures. After more than a year of difficulty in the choosing of a picture that wouldn’t go over budget, he began work on the politically controversial, artistically undeniable expressionist ‘Citizen Kane.’ A year later, he began work on an adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s novel ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’: a lesser work due to fact that the studio took away his right of final cut in the renegotiation period for his contract. Finally, the government, this being wartime, called upon Welles to go to South America, and specifically to Brazil to create a film to promote the new Hemispheric Good Neighbor policy in an effort to prevent Brazil from allying with the Nazis.

Welles ended up spending around 9 months in Brazil partying during Carnival and getting to know, purportedly, a multitude of women. He did, however, create reels and reels of material on the Carnival period, on the subject of the Jangadeiros, and on the Favelas. During this time, his friend Norman Foster worked in Mexico on the proposed Bonito the Bull segment of the film. The resultant film, titled ‘It’s All True,’ of all of this material was never completed. However, on Welles’ next project, ‘Journey Into Fear’, a thriller set in wartime Europe and based on the Eric Ambler pulp novel of the same name, he and Norman Foster worked together to direct the picture. Though Welles was uncredited for his work as director, this film fulfilled the stipulations of his three picture contract to write (he helped Joseph Cotten shape the script for the film), produce, direct, and star (as one of the main cast the Turkish Colonel Haki, though not the principal actor) in his films.

For many years, the film was not considered to be one amongst Welles oeuvre, but today critical opinion has turned as more and more information about his involvement has been uncovered: including his creation of the film’s opening sequence and the sheer number of scenes he either directed himself or helped to direct. If that was enough to cement the picture as a Welles creation, he cast the film mostly by himself and included many actors from his Mercury Theatre group in principal roles. Joseph Cotten, also the key adapter of the novel, was cast as the main protagonist Howard Graham. Ruth Warrick played his wife Stephanie Graham, Agnes Moorehead as Mrs. Mathews, and Everett Sloane as Kopeikin, an employee in the Turkish branch of Graham’s Armaments company. Finally, Welles’ sweetheart of the time, and mega-star in her own right, Dolores del Rio, plays opposite Cotten as his illicit love interest Josette Martel.

The film opens with a sinister scene of a very robust, round man preparing a handgun for use and holstering it. He combs his hair and dons his jacket as he prepares for some insidious action. All the while, the camera pans closer and closer to the window giving us, the audience, an ever closer view into the room of the would-be assassin. A gramophone plays an opera and the needle skips constantly. The man seems not to notice or to mind this.

Next scene, Graham is in Istanbul, Turkey with his wife working for his company in an attempt to sell weapons to the Turkish government for use arming their troops against the Nazi scourge. As he settles in to his hotel room for the night, Kopeikin arrives and spirits him away to the hotel’s bar, then to a local nightclub, all against Graham’s wishes. But he politely goes where his host leads. At the club, he meets Josette, who immediately takes to him, and he to her, but in a less romantically-inclined manner. A magician (probably an addition to the narrative by Welles who was enamored with magic) is performing simple conjuring feats, making doves and roses fly from his sleeve. He then asks Graham to join him on stage where he is strapped onto a wooden X. The lights go out momentarily in the club, a shot is fired, the lights turn back on, and the trick has worked. Graham is inside a coffin next to the X and the magician is on the X where Graham was mere moments before. but with one slight problem: He’s been shot in the chest and lies dead on the X-cross.

Graham is spirited away from the club by Kopeikin and arrives swiftly in the secret police headquarters of Istanbul where he meets Colonel Haki (Welles), the chief of police. Haki tells Graham that he is being targeted by Nazi spies who are attempting to kill him to halt an arms deal with the Turks from going through. The significance of the magician dead on the X-cross at the hand of a Nazi spy should, though a little complex to terse out, be lost on nobody. Haki shows him a photograph of the portly man from the film’s prologue. A man named Banat. The one who most likely shot at him in the club. He is also told of one Muller, a German spy, currently without photo identification, who is also on Graham’s trail.

Graham is set to travel with his wife, by train, to Batumi, Georgia, a Soviet satellite, on the following morning to conclude his business selling armaments in Europe by helping America’s slavic comrades procure weapons cheaply in the fight against Nazi Germany and fascism in Europe. Instead, Haki has procured a ticket aboard a steamer for the port of Batumi in the hope that this change of travel plans will foil the plans of the Germans. Graham’s wife will ride the train as planned with a Turkish police escort as an extra safety precaution, though she is not a target.

As these stories are won’t to do, Graham arrives aboard the ship, but finds that there must have been an inside man in the Turkish secret police. The friendly face of Josette Martel is onboard, but so too is the assassin Banat. As Graham’s own Turkish secret police escort tries his best to protect Graham, but ultimately fails in the process, Graham finds himself trapped overnight, like a rat in a maze between the devil he knows (Banat) and the devil he doesn’t (the as yet unidentified Muller). He fights and connives his way back to land, learning the identity of Muller along the way, falls into the hands of the German spies who are meant to kill him to send a message to his company, manages to escape, meets back with his wife in their new hotel accommodations in Batumi, is met once again by the German spies, is saved from Muller by Colonel Haki himself (who is subsequently wounded by Banat), and finally manages to get up the nerve to fight back in a hair-raising cat and mouse scene on the vertiginous window ledge outside his room (a scene Ridley Scott must seen himself before having made Blade Runner) where Banat falls to his death.

Although the film is better than most film noirs, which are overwhelmingly of a B-movie production quality and written by grade B minds, Journey Into Fear has its flaws. Besides the gramophone scenes wherein Banat becomes a menacing figure, the score is rather thin and workmanlike. The composer, Roy Webb, created powerful scores for Hitchcock’s films ‘Mr. And Mrs. Smith’ and ‘Notorious,’ as well as positively haunting scores for producer and auteur Val Lewton’s classic thrillers ‘Cat People,’ ‘I Walked With a Zombie’ and ‘The Leopard Man.’ However, his score here is anything but and is a notable step down in quality from the two masterful scores that Bernard Hermann had provided Welles on ‘Citizen Kane’ and ‘The Magnificent Ambersons.’

The cinematography is occasionally vertiginous as called for the scene when Graham debarks from the ship into the arms of German assassins and spies, and often enough claustrophobic and paranoia-inducing within the ship itself. However, these moments of expressionist framing, dutch angles, and occasional high contrast and deep focus photography are the exception throughout.

Finally, though the viewer (and Graham) are handed the mystery of Muller’s identity, we are shown the image of Banat, which lends little to his aura as a mysterious force once we have seen him often enough in close proximity aboard the ship with Graham. Haki is played enigmatically by Welles, and expresses an authoritarianism when he forces the steamer-trip onto Graham, but is ultimately just what he purports to be: a good Turk fighting for the anti-fascist cause. I half expected him to turn heel toward the end and when this did not occur, he becomes a wholly conventional character. Graham’s character, his relationship with Josette, and the paranoia and fear of the boat trip could have been fleshed out much further through the addition of more scenes and in the case of the latter, with stronger cinematography.

I am sure that many of these problems could have been alleviated by cutting the film as Welles intended. Instead, RKO cut substantial portions of the film, leaving it at the unreasonably short runtime of 68 minutes. Supposedly there is a version of the film available with 6 minutes of scenes added back into the film. Though I have been unable to find this version of the film. If you can, please send the appropriate links my way. I would much appreciate it.


Signing off,

Cody Ward

[Check out my review of Orson Welles’ award-winning adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello]


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