Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Journey Into Fear (1943)

'Journey Into Fear' was adapted from the Eric Ambler novel of the same name from 1940. The movie was completed in 1942, but it wasn't released theatrically, and in at least two altered forms, until 1943. More about that later. Eric Ambler was a prolific and well-known British author of mostly spy novels. Several of his novels were made into movies, such as 1939's 'The Mask Of Dimitrios' which was made a movie of the same name in 1944 (the novel was released in 1939). His 1937 novel 'Uncommon Danger' was turned into a movie called 'Background To Danger' in 1943 which was also the title under which the book was released in the US. His 1962 novel 'The Light Of Day' was put on the screen in 1964 by Jules Dassin as 'Topkapi'. The list goes on however, and in the case of 'Journey Into Fear', it does not end with this 1943 adaptation either. It was also used as source material for an episode on the 50s TV series 'Climax!', as well as a 1975 movie. Ambler also developed and co-wrote a tv series around the book's protagonist, Howard Graham, also to be called 'Journey Into Fear', but that never made it past the pilot episode. I would love to see that pilot episode however. And of course it was also made into a radio play, which happened more often than not in those days. In this case, 'Journey Into Fear' appeared as an episode on the well-known 'Escape' radio show in 1950, and can be heard here.

Anyways, let's focus on the 1943 movie, because there is plenty to say about this movie, especially about the involvement of Orson Welles. But let's first state the 'facts' as stated in the credits roll of this movie. The movie was directed by Norman Foster, after Joseph Cotten, the lead actor in this movie, turned it into a screenplay. Cinematography was handled by Karl Struss ('The Great Dictator') while Roy Webb ('Notorious', 'Out Of The Past') did the score. But as shall be explained further down, all is not what it seems... or so it seems.


The story revolves around Howard Graham (Joseph Cotten), a naval engineer working for an armaments manufacturer, who's in Istanbul, Turkey for a night with his wife Stephanie (Ruth Warrick), on their way to Batoumi. A local company representative, Kopeikin (Everett Sloane), takes Graham to a small nightclub where part of the entertainment consists of a magician's act. Graham gets asked to participate in one of his magic acts, and when it's over, the magician is shot dead. Graham realizes it was an attempt on his life, it would take some time to replace him, and in the meantime Turkey could not get any guns, which would give them a major disadvantage in the war against nazi Germany. Kopeikin and Graham make their way to the office of the police chief, Colonel Haki (Orson Welles), who tells Graham he knows a nazi agent named Mueller has ordered his killer Banat (Jack Moss) to take care of Graham. Seeing as they're on to Graham, Haki puts Graham on a small cargo boat to Batoumi, ensuring him his wife will be guarded and will travel to Batoumi safely. On the boat he sees Josette (Dolores del Rio) again, a sultry dancer he met at the nightclub, and her business parter Gogo Martel (Jack Durant). There are also several other passengers however, some of whom could be sent there to kill Graham. And he's absolutely sure they're still after him when Banat boards the ship on a stop in Trabzon...
'I didn't admit it, Stephanie, but I knew then that shot was meant for me...'
The movie starts off in a, for 1943, fairly odd way. It doesn't start with the credit roll but there's an opening scene before that. The camera zooms in on an opened window in a dingy hotel in Istanbul, looking into a room where a big and grubby man, Banat, puts a record on a record player. As the record plays, he's combing his hair and packing his gun. The record skips quite a bit however, creating a very weird mood and soundtrack. Once Banat turns off the player and leaves the room, the movie title is displayed and the credits start.

The scene in the nightclub is also memorable for several reasons. The magician and his trick that ultimately gets him killed is quite memorable, but Dolores del Rio's presence as Josette is the icing on the cake really. She's wearing a tight full body leopard skin suit in the nightclub scene, and while it would look more than a little silly on 99% of all women, it looks quite stunning on her. And she looks ravishing throughout this movie, del Rio has a lot of charisma and sex appeal here. French actrice Michèle Morgan ('The Chase', 'Passage To Marseille') was originally cast for the role of Josette, but I have problems imagining her looking anything but weird and wrong in that catsuit, so I'm glad the part went to Dolores del Rio, a Mexican actress who had been a movie star in Hollywood since the 20s.
'I am dumbfounded. But then I am dumbfounded every 25 minutes.'
Josette is also a part of the voice-over narration, which is done by Graham/Joseph Cotten, as he recites a letter he's written to his wife. The letter, and thus the narration, deals mostly with Graham making excuses for a fling/affair he had with Josette while on the boat, recalling all the events involved with the boat trip, although oddly enough not even so much as a tight hug or a kiss is shared between them in the movie. At least not in the footage that has been left untouched! There is however also a known version of 'Journey Into Fear' without the voice-over narration which means that in one version of the movie, the story is told in flashback using the voice-over narration, and in another version the story is told in a linear fashion, due to the the lack of voice-over narration! I am curious to see the other version, as well as the original version (which is improbable to ever surface). Supposedly the lost footage contained more references to the implied affair between Graham and Josette, as well as Colonel Haki trying to seduce Graham's wife Stephanie on the train to Batoumi!

The movie however is sprinkled, from start to finish, with all kinds of special touches. Banat's scratched up record makes an appearance in the opening scene. Its skipping soundtrack also announces Banat's arrival on the ship to the viewer, before Graham is aware of Banat's presence. Del Rio's bodysuit is an obvious one, and what a special touch it is! There is also a lot of humor in this movie. A couple travelling on the boat, Mr. and Mrs. Matthews (Frank Readick and Agnes Moorehead), have a very weird relationship, which is explained by Mr. Matthews to Graham. It's hard to explain in a brief manner, but he used socialist rhetoric as a means to get his wife to treat him well, because she fears what people might think of them, only to start believing the rhetoric and becoming a socialist himself. Visually there are a lot of small but nice touches as well. Camera shots at low and/or tilted Dutch angles, plenty of shadows (the majority of the movie takes place during the evening/night), people carefully positioned in shots to create tension, I imagine a lot more thought and care went into the camera work than you'd think at first. The finale is also memorable, taking place outside of a hotel in the pouring rain.


There are also some weird plot holes, or unexplained things at the very least, which might be due to the excessive cutting that was done. For instance Graham enters the boat with a rather large gun given to him by Kopeikin. He hides this gun underneath his matress, only to be gone later on. The gun is never seen again, nor is it ever revealed who stole it. And how do Mueller and his men know Graham is on the boat to Batoumi? There are more odd things, and I expect a lot of them making more sense with the additional footage that was left on the editing room floor. It isn't distracting however, it adds to the fun, because you never know what to expect.

The more and more I see of Joseph Cotten, the more of a fan of his work I become. The man was an amazing but somewhat under-appreciated actor with a wide range. Even though his performance here is fairly low-key and is nowhere near the presence he had in for instance 'Shadow Of A Doubt', he is really good here and he manages to express emotions with subtle facial motions. Dolores del Rio is also great here, although it seems clear her and Cotten shared more screentime in the original version. In a way, not having that footage, leaving some questions about their relationship unanswered, adds to her seductive aura. But even still, I enjoyed her performance a lot here. Most of the other, smaller characters are given a quirky side, resulting in some off-beat and funny moments, such as the aforementioned Mr. and Mrs. Matthews, and the actors do solid work here. Jack Moss has no lines as Peter Banat, and doesn't have to do much here besides stare at Cotten and eat soup with crumbled crackers in it, which is possibly for a good reason, as he wasn't an actor, but more about that later.
'Mr. Graham and I are going to blow up the Bank of England, seize Parliament, shoot the gentry, and set up a Communist government!'
Some people might say 'Journey Into Fear' is not a noir because it's got some quirky/funny moments and exhibits far less grittiness than usually associated with noir. I can see their points. But thematically the movie falls squarely into noir territories and a lot of the characters on the boat could potentially be linked to the nazi's plot to murder Graham, even including Josette, who just so happens to be on the same boat as Graham. And this is 1943, when the whole 'film noir' style was still being fleshed out (some argue it wasn't until 1944's 'Double Indemnity' that true film noir emerged). So yes, it's got elements from a variety of genres/styles, and film noir is definitely one of the main ones there in my opinion.

So, 'Journey Into Fear' is a fast-paced, entertaining and incredibly fun film noir, that looks great and has great characters, with good performances. Even Orson Welles isn't too over-the-top here as he had a tendency to do. This movie deserves more attention that it seems to receive. Do not hesitate to check this movie out, you won't regret it!


There is also another level of fun associated with 'Journey Into Fear', and that is the involvement of Orson Welles. Was there ever a movie he acted in that he did not have another hand in? Probably not. So there are also a lot of rumors and stories about his involvement with 'Journey Into Fear', a lot of which can be found on the excellent Wellesnet.

As mentioned before, Joseph Cotten is credited as having written the screenplay. However, it is widely believed he co-wrote it with Orson Welles, basing their screenplay on an earlier, uncredited, screenplay written by Ben Hecht and Richard Collins. Ben Hecht would become a fairly well-known screenwriter whose noir credits, sometimes uncredited, include 'Gilda', 'Whirlpool' and 'Kiss Of Death'.
Welles and his production company Mercury Productions produced 'Journey Into Fear', together with RKO. And while Welles has denied directing this movie, the amount of visual touches do suggest that Welles had more than a few talks with director Norman Foster. Foster was an actor/director who up until then had directed mostly Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto movies and was working at the time for Welles on 'Bonito The Bull', a short movie which was to be part of Welles' never to be finished 'It's All True' project. Welles was always doing several things at the same time, and so he got Foster to direct 'Journey Into Fear' instead. But I imagine Welles being Welles, he directed his fair share of scenes, including the striking opening scene which was added post-production. There are apparently even photos of him directing while dressed up as Colonel Haki, supposedly even directing 'Journey Into Fear' at night and 'The Magnificent Ambersons' during daytime. Cotten was also the lead actor of that movie, so it must have been quite a busy time for the two of them!
Welles didn't run Mercury Productions all by himself, and one of his business associates at that time, Jack Moss, ended up playing a big role in this movie as Peter Banat, the assassin. Remarkably, Moss/Banat does not talk throughout the entire movie. There is a big backstory about the relationship between Welles and Moss, who had a troubled relationship and eventually had a falling out, but that happened after this movie was done, I presume they were still on good terms when 'Journey Into Fear' was shot. There's an interesting piece about them here, for those who are interested, claiming Moss is (at least partially) responsible for Welles' downfall.
Having mentioned Mercury Productions already, Welles was also the person behind the Mercury Theater, a group of stage and radio performers, and as such, a lot of actors from that company were routinely cast in his movies. The most famous names are Joseph Cotten ('Citizen Kane', 'The Magnificent Ambersons') and Agnes Moorehead who would become the voice of the well-known 1943 Suspense radio play 'Sorry, Wrong Number', which would be adapted into a popular film noir starring Barbara Stanwyck in 1948 (reviewed here). Other Mercury Theater actors who also appear in 'Journey Into Fear' include Edgar Barrier, Frank Readick (his only feature-length movie credit) and Everett Sloane ('Citizen Kane', 'The Lady From Shanghai').
As mentioned earlier, Michèle Morgan was replaced by Dolores del Rio for the part of Josette. Dolores del Rio just so happened to be a having an affair with Orson Welles around that time, one does wonder if that had anything to with her casting.

'Journey Into Fear' was also one of the last projects Welles did while under contract with RKO, and a strained relationship it was, with Welles spending tons of money on projects that never went anywhere like the aforementioned 'It's All True' movie. RKO had shelved the finished movie in 1942, and managed to cut out 20 or so minutes of the movie before finally releasing it in 1943. Unfortunately the cut footage is most likely lost, as unused film was routinely destroyed in those days. But between their 'editing' job and releasing the movie, they had Orson Welles shoot additional footage, which is the opening scene apparently. Welles would later claim this was the first movie to have an opening scene shown before the credits, but had to admit later he was wrong, as it had been done a couple of times in the 30s already. Welles and Joseph Cotten also wrote the voice-over narration which was done by Joseph Cotten. Why there are 2 versions of this movie, with one not having this additional footage nor the voice-over narration, is unknown to me, but the version without the voice-over narration or opening scene, might be the version RKO created before Welles was involved again (it's about the same length however so that would suggest Welles cut out some material for the 'definitive' version as well?). Apparently this other version was shown in the UK a few times, so hopefully at some point this movie will be released properly on DVD with both versions. One can always hope!

8/10

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