Classic Film Review: Welles goes Turk for “Journey Into Fear”

For film buffs, the short and acidic 1943 thriller “Journey Into Fear” is more fun for the argument it sets up than the 68 minutes presented on the screen.

Orson Welles helped script it, took a beefy supporting role — as a head of pre-WWII Turkish intelligence — put many of his repertory company in it, including his then-girlfriend, the exotic Dolores del Rio, and thought of directing it at one point.

The man loved thriller novelist Eric Ambler.

But journeyman director Norman Foster, known for “Mr. Moto” serials and not a lot else, came on to run the set and make the trains run on time for RKO’s “wunderkind.” The result is a sort of dry run for Carol Reed’s later “The Third Man,” an atmospheric European mystery built around Joseph Cotten, as an American hounded by the corruption and intrigues of the Old World, with Welles in a scene-devouring supporting role.

Seeing it again recently the academic consensus arrived at in recent years — that Welles directed or “suggested” direction for the scenes he was in, and didn’t take much interest in the rest — seems the most likely.

He was an imposing performer, and several films he appeared in give the sense that he’s taken over behind the camera as well, at least for a bit. Here, his booming baritone and height so tower over his scenes that “Journey” becomes a film about Col. Haki in the opening, and the finale.

But this story of a ballistics expert (Cotten) menaced and chased across the Eastern Mediterranean, tempted (sort of) by a femme fatale (del Rio), is least interesting when it is literally at sea — the middle acts. The plot is a trifle confusing, and probably was more so before studio mandated cuts and adding a narration.

Col. Haki’s presence livens up the opening, and the murderous finale is like a Welles version of Reed’s later “Third Man” chases and suspense — shadows, rain, a killer sidling along a balcony after an in-over-his-head hero, Howard Graham (Cotten).

“Ah, you have this advantage over the soldier, Mr. Graham,” Welles’ Haki growls. “You can run away without being a coward.”

Welles knew the strengths of his Mercury company, and parked Ruth Warrick and Agnes Moorhead in decent parts and gave his pint-sized dynamo Everett Sloane a weasel’s presence in the intrigues.

“You might take a shine to Josette! After all, this little girl is very stupid. Of course Josette is stupid too, but she has it!”

“Journey Into Fear” has experienced something of a revival among Welles fans, thanks to a restored (longer, no voice over narration) “European cut” that runs 76 minutes. It’s a shame most classic film TV distributors haven’t replaced their versions with the Museum of Modern Art cut.

Watching it again recently, I found its interest lies in Welles the performer, much like his turn in Huston’s “Moby Dick,” a film worth seeing for “the good parts,” those being Welles as Col. Haki, and flashes of the leading man Joseph Cotten quickly became after its release.

MPAA Rating: “approved”

Cast: Joseph Cotten, Dolores del Rio, Everett Sloane, Ruth Warrick, Agnes Moorhead and Orson Welles.

Credits: Directed by Norman Foster (and Orson Welles). Script by Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten, based on the Eric Ambler novel. An RKO release.

Running time: 1:08

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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