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Journey into Fear (September 19, 2013)

The English writer Eric Ambler published his spy novel, Journey into Fear, in 1940. RKO bought the rights to make a movie from the story. The movie was produced from January through March, 1942, directly after Orson Welles had finished principal filming on The Magnificent Ambersons. It was intended that Welles himself would direct this project, however, he had a commitment to go to Brazil to film It’s All True. Nelson Rockefeller, who was then coordinator of Inter-American affairs for the United States government, and who also was on the RKO board of directors, wanted Welles to film a project in that country. It would help, the government thought, with American attempts to get that country and other Latin American countries on the United States’ side in World War II. Welles would produce, but would not be available to complete Journey into Fear, so his performance was quickly filmed over three or four days before he left for Rio in March, 1942. The film was directed by Norman Foster, who had previously directed films in the Mr. Moto and Charlie Chan series for 20th Century-Fox. Welles claimed in a later interview to have “designed” the film, and said that he directed some of the final chase sequences. Not coincidentally, those sequences, which involve sharp downward angles, are visually striking, so Welles might very well want to claim them.

The script was by Joseph Cotten with some uncredited contributions by Welles. Karl Struss was the cinematographer. Music was by Roy Webb. Art direction and set design was again by Al D’Agostino and Mark-Lee Kirk. The actors include many of the actors we’ve seen in either Kane or Ambersons – Joseph Cotten, Ruth Warrick, Everett Sloane, and Agnes Moorehead. Delores Del Rio, who had been Welles’ lover, was also featured. A young Hans Conried plays a magician, and Welles’ business manager Jack Moss portrays Banat. His appearance at the start of the film combing his hair while a 78-rpm Victrola record plays, and then skips, sets a tone of undefined unease.

By June, 1942 Welles’ four film contract with RKO was cancelled by Charles Koerner, who had succeeded George Schaefer as studio head. The film was re-edited by other hands. Welles reportedly filmed some additional scenes, added the narration, and recut the final reel. It was released in February, 1943, nearly a year after it was completed. In 2005 an alternate version with six more minutes was shown at a festival in Switzerland.

It is a moody and atmospheric film, reminiscent of another Eric Ambler novel translated to celluloid, the 1944 film The Mask of Dimitrios, also set partly in Istanbul. The haste and low budget with which Journey into Fear was executed led to many darkened scenes, which added to the menace and suspense of the picture, but which also has been seen as a precursor of what would later be called film noir. I hope you enjoy watching it with me tonight.