Once referred to by New York Time film critic Roger Greenspun as “The Poor Man’s 007,” Michael Tuchner’s 1975 film Fear is the Key is an enormously entertaining actioner that supplants its wild, twist-filled story with rollicking action set pieces and a very game cast. Now on Blu-ray from Imprint Films with a decent presentation of an aged master and a few special features to enjoy, this release comes Recommended!
Based on a novel by Alistair MacLean of the same title, Fear is the Key resembles the pulp of late-night British television in the 1970s with the kind of aesthetic punch and fully realized action that you’d get on the big screen. Think James Bond or The Sweeney, but with a lot more nerve, grit, and fewer gadgets. The story is transplanted from the UK to Louisiana, and such the sets are rather cheap, but the story has an insane narrative drive. Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, the film literally shifts gears and keeps you in suspense. Plus, any film that starts with a dangerous 15-minute car chase through the dusty streets and swamplands of Louisiana is more than worth a look.
Fear is the Key’s very modest budget actually works in its favor, as the film starts out with our hero, deep-sea salvage expert John Talbot (Barry Newman) as he learns of his wife and child’s death from a mysterious airplane accident. Three years later, John is on the trail of those responsible for their murders, but to get close to these people he needs to become the person he fears most: a hard-nosed criminal. Talbot sits down in a dusty Louisiana bar and starts the trouble from there, beating up some cops, kidnapping Sarah Ruthven (the heir to a petroleum fortune), and taking off in a stolen Ford sports car for a chase that results in exactly what Talbot wanted: attention. I won’t spoil any of the other twists and turns, but Talbot eventually gets to the people responsible and exacts revenge in strange, lurid ways.
The Alistair MacLean novel is precisely the kind of pulp that audiences wanted in the 1970s, capitalizing upon the huge boom created by UK crime serials and the James Bond series. The marked difference between Bond and Talbot is that one’s a super spy and the other is a humble oater with a good plan and plenty of anger to dispense. Plus, with the lack of budget to use exotic locations like James Bond films would, Fear is the Key is forced to rest on the laurels of its script, one that is very gracefully eked out by director Michael Tuchner to keep the audience invested. It makes no claims to being the sophisticated actioner that would come out of the UK in that period, too. And even though the preposterous nature of all the twists and turns really does border on comic/serial nonsense, it’s all very well-directed.
Ben Kingsley even shows up for a role in Fear is the Key, although he’s mostly silent and there for his very threatening presence more than anything. Howard Vernon chews some scenery as well, especially in the insane finale, and Barry Newman is a very capable hero that hides his true intentions under the guise of a hardened criminal. It’s a trope that’s been tried to death, though it works here rather well. All in all, Fear is the Key is a sorely underseen ‘70s-era actioner that deserves more recognition.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-rays
Barry Newman sets out for revenge in Fear is the Key, presented here as a single-disc (BD50) Blu-ray release from Imprint Films. The disc boots up to a standard menu screen with options to play the film, set up subtitles, explore chapters and browse special features. The Blu-ray comes housed in a thick, clear case and a limited-edition slipcover with original theatrical art.
Imprint presents Fear is the Key in 1080p from an old StudioCanal master produced for the 2007 DVD release distributed by Optimum Home Entertainment. For an old master, it still looks rather good, with deep blacks and good contrast coming through. Where the presentation really shows its age is in the layer of film grain, which is very, very inconsistent and can look smeary in some select shots. Those de-noised sections don’t harm the overall presentation too much and the source looks to be in good condition with little damage to be seen. While the film could certainly benefit from a new scan, what’s presented here is still worthy of exposure to 1080p.
Fear is the Key is presented with an LCPM 2.0 mono track that is free of damage and sounds very clean. Roy Budd’s score could use an upgrade, as it sounds rather flat with dialogue and other effects here. That being said, those big action sequences are nicely dynamic and gain some breadth in the low end.
Imprint provides a nice collection of special features to dig into, including an interview with associate producer Gavrik Losey that breaks down all the vehicular mayhem they caused in Louisiana on that production. Plus, Losey details how valuable working with the Teamsters union of that area to pull of some of the crazy stunts. Highly recommend watching this interview if you’re a fan of the film. The other 41-minute featurette with interviews with cast and crew is also very worthwhile, with people sharing stories about the odd experience and culture shock they got when shooting in Louisiana.
Fear is the Key, a much-underseen actioner from director Michael Tuchner and novelist Alistair MacLean, arrives on Blu-ray for the first time ever courtesy of Imprint Films. While the master is certainly aged and the film could use a new scan, this release is more than worthwhile thanks to the supplements package and the well-encoded 1080p presentation. This release comes Recommended!