Magician, burlesque dancer, ballistics expert and assassin: Like Norman Foster's taut thriller, JOURNEY INTO FEAR, all of these professions rely on excruciatingly good timing.
"The terror of waiting for the final revelation, not the seeing of it, is the most powerful dramatic stimulus toward tension and fright." Curtis Harrington, Hollywood Quarterly 1952.
Timing is the essence of this particular journey into fear.
The year of the film's release is 1943, and presumably, that is the time period indicated in the story line.
"Nineteen forty-three was a year of intense war effort in the United States. Industrial production reached a figure it wouldn't match again until 1951. The war marked all civic activity." (PANORAMA OF AMERICAN FILM NOIR 1941-1953, by Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton, page 39.)
Both actors and movie-goers could relate to the experience of dire "real-time" pressures and deadly consequences during the ongoing fight against the Nazi regime. Much of the world's focus was on which side would win.
Our story unfolds in Europe, as our characters arrive at the exotic locale of Istanbul.
Promptly after their arrival in Turkey, Howard Graham (Joseph Cotten) and his wife Stephanie (Ruth Warrick) are greeted by an associate, Kopeikin (Everett Sloane).
Kopeikin ends up taking Graham for a boys night out to a nightclub with burlesque and illusion performances. During a magician's disappearance act, Graham is persuaded to participate. Graham is tied to a cross and the magician nails himself into a coffin-like box. The lights go out in the nightclub. We hear a gunshot. The lights go on. The act has ended successfully, as the magician is now tied to the cross and Graham is in the box. But tragically, the magician has been shot. It is clear that the intended target was Graham.
"I knew that shot was meant for me. You know how many months I spent for the company on the Turkish navy. Well time counts in this war, and with me out of the way it'll take all that time and more with somebody else out here, before Turkey can get any more guns. That's why they're after me." Much of the tale is revealed to us by voice-over, as Graham reads a letter he is writing to his wife.
An imposing Colonel Haki (played by Orson Welles, notably showcasing one of the only believable foreign accents in the film), is head of Turkey's secret police, and legendary not only for being a womanizer, but also his ability to drink two buckets of whiskey without becoming intoxicated. Under the circumstances of the attempted murder, the Colonel rushes Graham to board a cargo ship transporting cattle, to ensure a safe return to the United States.
So, naval engineer Howard Graham commences a terrifying voyage across the Black Sea. The real "noir" triumph of the film at this point, is that the viewer is suspicious of EVERYONE. All of the supporting characters (with the exception of Graham and his wife) could potentially be in alignment with the Nazis seeking Graham's death.
In one scene on the ship, Graham comes face to face with Banat the hitman, sitting across from him at a meal. Shocked and scared, realizing that the cold-blooded killer is his fellow passenger, Graham tries to concentrate on his food. As Banat violently crushes crackers for his soup, Graham reaches for the salt and spills it. Here we see the mythic, superstitious quality of the noir protagonist. While keeping eye contact with said killer, a trembling Graham reaches for some of the salt and proceeds to toss some over his shoulder.
A few comic jewels relieve this kind of deadly tension throughout the plot.
There is the Turkish captain of the ship (Richard Bennett), a stereotypical salty drunken seafarer, who is thoroughly amused at Graham's paranoia that a murderer is on board. He does not speak English, but knows how to point and teasingly say "Bang, bang" every time he encounters Graham.
There are Graham's weak attempts in the voice-over/letter to wife, justifying his blossoming friendship with Josette Martel (Dolores Del Rio), a fellow passenger and a dancer in the nightclub where the magician was murdered. "I was lonely!!"
Then there is one of the ship's passengers, Mathews (Frank Readick), who explains to Graham that he has "tamed" his disagreeable shrew of a wife (Agnes Moorehead) by publicly making outrageous claims about his own political beliefs. The most hilarious moment occurs when the ship makes its final stop in Batum. Mathews is surreptitiously "arming" Graham with unlikely weapons, a pocket knife and an altered umbrella, then Mrs Mathews walks in. "Discreet?!" She looks on disapprovingly. "What is there to be discreet about?"
Mathews replies, without pausing, "Ahhh. You may ask! Mr Graham and I are going to blow up the bank of England, seize Parliament, shoot the gentry and set up a Communist government."
One aspect of this film that I found to be most intriguing from a technical perspective is the rumor that Orson Welles took over the directing of JOURNEY INTO FEAR, which he vehemently denied. Welles stated instead that he did not direct any part of the film and his friend (Norman Foster) was the director. I do not want to disregard the talent of Norman Foster, whose filmography also includes two other noirs, KISS THE BLOOD OFF MY HANDS (1948) and WOMAN ON THE RUN (1950).
However any fellow Orson Welles fans watching JOURNEY INTO FEAR would agree with me, without a doubt, that significant creative input from him is evident in this film. It has all of the marks of an "Orson Welles project." The camera angles and visually detailed arrangement of the shots have Welles's distinct thumbprint. In addition, it is coincidental that the cast of characters has many of the same actors that starred in CITIZEN KANE (1941).
Orson Welles, like Tim Burton, apparently liked to cast the same actors over and over again. Both CITIZEN KANE and JOURNEY INTO FEAR starred: Agnes Moorehead, Everett Sloane, Joseph Cotten, Ruth Warrick and Welles himself.
Orson Welles produced and designed JOURNEY INTO FEAR, and co-wrote the script with Joseph Cotten. Apparently this is the only script that Cotten is credited with writing despite his long career in film. Welles's stand-out contribution was the beginning pre-credit sequence. The camera slowly glides up to his apartment room from outside, mimicking the style of crane shots in CITIZEN KANE. It depicts the portly assassin listening to a phonograph; the record begins to skip, as he prepares for his next murder. The sound of the skipping record is creatively and strategically used in other scenes of the movie to emphasize the murderer's proximity to Graham.
In the 1992 autobiography he wrote with Peter Bogdanovich, THIS IS ORSON WELLES, Welles was documented as saying that he thought he was the first to come up with a scene before the credits but that he later learned that there were a few films that did this in the late thirties.
In any case, the godfathers of noir (Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton) profess that JOURNEY INTO FEAR, "bears the signature of Norman Foster....Welles collaborated on the scenario, and the exceptional breeziness and subtlety of his style emerge in the precision of the shooting script and the plastic beauty of the photography.
Basing the film on a spy case that's only a pretext and visibly turns into a hoax, Foster and Welles have rediscovered the chief laws of the noir genre: an oneiric plot; strange suspects; a silent killer in thick glasses, a genuine tub of lard buttoned up in a raincoat, who before each murder plays an old, scratched record on an antique phonograph; and the final bit of bravura, which takes place on the facade of the grand hotel of Batum." (PANORAMA OF AMERICAN FILM NOIR 1941-1953, page 39.)
And the final bit of exciting "bravura", played out in a slippery downpour, made that slow journey by boat to Batum worth the wait!