1975 Journey Into Fear Keeps you guessing

Jim Lundstrom

Vincent Price, Sam Waterson and Ian McShane in the 1975 update of Eric Ambler's 1940 WWI spy novel Journey Into Fear.

I recently ran across a reference to the 1943 spy film noir Journey Into Fear, from Eric Ambler’s 1940 novel of the same name. Master spy novelist John LeCarre once said Ambler was “the source on which we all draw.”  

The novel involves an English armaments engineer who is trying to return to England from Turkey with plans for a Turkish defense system. His only problem is that Nazi assassins don’t want him to make it home.  

The 1943 movie is a Mercury Production, as in Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater. Welles was uncredited as producer and screenwriter. Joseph Cotton, star of the film and of many Mercury productions, was credited as the screenwriter.  

The cast includes Welles as Col. Haki, head of Turkish intelligence, and his girlfriend at the time, Dolores Del Rio as the singer/prostitute Josette. The rest of the cast was made up of Mercury Theater players such as Agnes Moorhead, Ruth Warrick and Everett Sloane, as well as Mercury staff, most notably business manager Jack Moss as hired assassin Banat. Moss was not an actor and only agreed to take the role if he had no lines – more on that later.

I had to see this movie immediately. As soon as I got home, I searched for it, and quickly learned that not only is it not available on any streaming platform but you can’t buy a DVD of it in this country. Only Region 2 DVDs are available. Bummer! Now I really want to see this movie. Why the blackout? You can’t even see it on the usually reliable YouTube, often my course of last resort when looking for an episode of something or a movie not found elsewhere.

I later read that there are two versions of this film – a severely edited shorter American version and a longer European version that apparently includes dialogue thought too risqué for tender American ears in the 1940s, things like sex and socialism.

Well, I can’t wait to see that movie some day, but what I found instead is a 1975 Canadian version, set in contemporary times, and starring an overwrought Sam Waterson in the title role as Graham, an American oil mining engineer with secrets about a Turkish oil deposit that he has to take back to the U.S.  

He is accompanied by an interesting cast of side characters that include Zero Mostel, Vincent Price, Donald Pleasence, Stanley Holloway (in his final film role), Shelley Winters, Ian McShane and a very fit Yvette Mimieux, who portrays a singer/prostitute traveling with her guitarist/pimp husband.

Ian McShane plays the role of assassin Banat, who has been hired to kill Waterson’s character. Like Jack Moss before him, McShane utters not a single word in the movie, which makes me wonder if the producers of Canada’s biggest movie to date read Amber’s book for inspiration or just updated the Welles’ script?

Waterson’s portrayal of an oil engineer with secrets inside his head that several entities want is fine until the pressure amps up and all we see of him is a sweaty, red-faced victim who is not very good at making choices or communicating as a human being when his life depends on it.  

The movie begins rather confusingly – one of several confusing moments – with the first attempt on Waterson’s life. Someone has cut the brake lines in the car he is riding in, and the car is hurtling down a steep dirt road. After the passenger door falls off, the driver pushes Waterson out of the car before it flies off a cliff and hurtles into a rock wall, eventually exploding, as crashed cars are wont to do in movies. But we don’t know what is going on. We haven’t been introduced to any characters yet, so what to make of all this?

The film then abruptly cuts to Graham aboard a train, sharing a compartment with an elderly Englishwoman. After a couple of nefarious mad monk types pop in and out of their compartment, the woman asks Graham if he would change seats with her – she doesn’t like riding backwards on a train. He obliges, and the camera cuts to the two mad monks in the next compartment, preparing to shoot a steel arrow through the wall and into Waterson’s back, but, of course, they get the little old lady instead.      

It takes a while for everyone to reveal their true character. At first everyone seems suspicious. Graham first meets up with the greasy, ingratiating Kupelkin (Zero Mostel), who insists on introducing him to Istanbul nightlife, which includes a nightclub where Josette (Yvette Mimieux) and her guitarist husband are performing. Josette shows off a very fit body while singing.  

When Graham returns to his hotel room, someone shoots at him as he enters, but only manages to shoot Graham in the hand. The head of Turkish intelligence arrives and advises Graham to take a slow boat to Genoa, which is also being taken by Josette and her pimp husband, as well as a seemingly gentle archaeologist Dervos (Vincent Price) and Kuvelti, a Turkish tobacco salesman who doesn’t seem to know too much about tobacco (Donald Pleasence), and an older married couple – played by ugly American Shelley Winters and accommodating Englishman Stanley Holloway (in his final film role). Finally, we have the McShane’s sweaty, silent assassin.  

'There is another confusing scene when the ship makes port in Greece and Kuvelti asks Graham if he can accompany him ashore. They take a taxi, and at one point Graham gets out to buy American cigarettes. We see him buy a carton of Kents from a roadside stall, but the taxi, much to Kuvelti’s consternation, has continued on and he can’t get the driver to stop. Why? Who knows?  

This causes Graham to wander around an old, deserted part of the city, where someone starts shooting at him. This is the point where Waterson’s acting gets goofy. He attempts to climb over a fence while a guard tries to prevent him from doing so. The guard finally opens the gate for Graham, and Kuvelti pulls up in the taxi. How did he find Graham, who has been wandering all over the place? Who knows?  

Back on the ship it is eventually revealed that Josette is a prostitute, Kuvelti is a Turkish agent assigned to protect Graham and the kindly archaeologist is the mastermind behind the plot to kill Graham.  

Once landed in Genoa, Graham goes running around like an idiot, followed by Banat the silent assassin, but Graham eventually overpowers Banat and pushes him to his death. Now, these two guys have been running all over the place, but somehow Dervos finds them just after Graham has killed Banat. All this time Graham has been carryoing a flare gun he stole from the boat. He uses that on Dervos, and it probably makes for the best or worst death scene Vincent Price ever had.  

Yes, now I really need to see the 1943 version.