A Wellesian journey into fear

Jim Lundstrom

Joseph Cotten's American armaments engineer finds himself between a Nazi agent and a silent assassin in the 1943 film noir Journey Into Fear.

Ah, what a treat to finally see Orson Welles’ 1943 noir thriller Journey Into Fear.

Some weeks ago I wrote about wanting to see it, but had to settle instead for a 1975 remake because I could not find the original on any streaming channels. I had given up on seeing it any time soon when I received a letter from a reader in Two Harbors who had a VHS copy he was willing to let me see. I was just about to respond and accept his kind offer when my old pal Fred in Bayfield sent me a link to an online source.

So I sent the Two Harbors reader a letter thanking him for his offer, and then made time to queue up the movie on what appears to be a Russian website. And despite the herky-jerky nature of the presentation on this odd streaming channel, I was so glad to finally see this perfect piece of film noir from Orson Welles.

It was so good to see. It feels like a missing link in the Welles' oeuvre. So good. So compact. So well told. Despite never knowing where you are, you always know where you are because you are in very good hands (unlike the remake, where I often felt lost in the poorly told story).

But with Welles, well, this is just pure cinematic fun. Things begin with the RKO logo with Morse code blasting a signal. Then a camera sweeps up from the street and into a dark room where a silent fat man is winding up his phonograph. Thirty seconds in, the record begins to skip. That skip will be repeated for shock effect later.

That sweeping window scene – don't tell me that wasn't Welles. For some reason Welles made certain that his name on this film was only as an actor, the bigger-than-life ladykiller Col. Haki, head of Turkish intelligence. But so much of it seems pure Welles. In fact, it almost seems like a dress rehearsal for the 1949 Wellesian masterpiece The Third Man, also starring Joseph Cotten as a man immersed deeply in a world he does not understand.

Cotten has the screenwriting credit for Journey Into Fear, from Eric Ambler's 1940 novel of the same name. But Welles can be felt in the screenplay as well. All I can do is wonder why Welles kept his name out of the credits.

The cast is almost entirely made up of people Welles had worked with in the past in his successful Mercury Theatre. For example, the silent fat man with Coke-bottle bottom spectacles playing  hired assassin Banat is actually Jack Moss, who was considered a "general factotum" for Mercury Theatre – doing, I guess, whatever Welles wanted him to do.

Since he had never acted, when Welles asked him to take the part of the assassin, he agreed to do so only if he did not have to speak a line. It just happened to work out. He didn’t need any words. His fat, greasy character is menacing enough without speech.

Banat has been hired by Nazis to kill an American armaments engineer (Joseph Cotten) simply to delay armaments to the Turkish navy. They know if they kill this guy, the Americans will just send another one, so they want him dead just to delay the inevitable.

Cotten is the perfect hapless dupe, the hero in trouble way over his head. Journey Into Fear takes place during World War II, which only adds to the menace. The only Nazi we meet is an elderly archeaologist, who, it turns out, is the one who has hired Banat.

The evil Nazi influence is shadowing everything that happens in this tight 68-minute film noir.

Much of the film takes place in the claustrophobic quarters of a tramp steamer. There’s a great scene where Cotten tries to decide how to carry the bulky 45 revolver that he’s been given for protection. He tries his back pocket, but no. Then he slips it into the inside pocket of his suit coat, but that produces an obvious bulge. Finally he slips it under the mattress. Of course it isn’t there when he needs it.

I’ve read this movie was first presented to RKO as a 91-minute film, but the studio objected to dialogue dealing with sex and socialism and whittled it down to 68 minutes. There is supposed to be a 71-minute European version.There is still some fun with socialism in the form of a henpecked husband (Mercury Theatre player and the dark voice of radio's The Shadow Frank Readick) who pretends to be socialist to annoy his shrewish wife (the great Mercury Theatre regular Agnes Moorhead).  

There is much speculation that Welles had a hand in directing the film even though credit goes to Norman Foster, who previously worked on the Charlie Chan series.

Welles also plays the bigger-than-life head of Turkish intelligence, Col. Haki, who seems to have everything under control.

In every film noir there must be a femme fatale. In this instance it is a professional dancer played by Mexican actress Dolores del Rio, who was Welles' girlfriend at the time. She is introduced to us in this film with a striking closeup.

I have to assume that some of the 23 minutes RKO cut from the original had to do with del Rio's character because she seems rather subdued in what remains.

Cotten's character is a married man who has been separated from his wife (Ruth Warrick, who had the thankless role of Kane's first wife in Citizen Kane) by the threat on his life. I wasn't feeling any chemistry between Cotten's character and del Rio's. Maybe a little, but not enough to justify her femme fatale status in a film noir worth its weight. I would love to see those missing 23 minutes.

But to make up for it all there is a great climax in the dark with buckets of rain pouring down and the combatants clinging to the side of a building. Just as it looks like Col. Haki will be the hero, Banat shoots him and the colonel is propelled backwards through a window into a room, leaving Cotten to finish off Banat.