“Oh, by the way, have you a gun in your luggage?”
The public’s fascination with Orson Welles continues to grow in stature over the years, much like the man’s waistline in his older age. This is partly by design. From groundbreaking visionary and celebrity washout to bohemian poet and back again, Welles was a man who knew how to spin these peaks and valleys into captivating yarns, and codify a reputation as one of the most celebrated American filmmakers to ever pick up a camera — despite having less than a dozen features to his name. He claimed that “There’s no biography so interesting as the one in which the biographer is present”, and one always got the sense that he meant it. He told contradictory stories about his past in interviews. He gave smug apologies to the press following critical backlash. His smoldering brew of charisma, arrogance, and natural showmanship were even bigger selling points than his films, which (to further blur the lines) often focused on characters tripped up by their charming arrogance.
Welles’s triumphs have been thoroughly documented; Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Touch of Evil (1958) [I personally would include The Lady from Shanghai (1948)], but perhaps more crucial to his mythos are the films in which things are inherently less clear. The films that, whether through circumstance or Welles’s affinity for ambiguity, have continued to raise questions regarding how much he contributed and exactly how much credit he deserves. The extent of his work on the period drama Black Magic (1949) and the historical epic David and Goliath (1960) remain hazy, as are the rumors that he ghost-directed crucial scenes in the seminal film noir The Third Man (1950). The most confounding of these “unofficial” Welles pictures, however, and the one that best fits within his filmography, is the 1943 thriller Journey into Fear.
Journey, based on Eric Ambler’s novel of the same name, certainly had all the makings of a Welles production. He was announced as the director and star of the film in July 1941, and was slated to begin shooting after the completion of Ambersons. He tossed out Ben Hecht’s original screenplay and wrote a new one with Joseph Cotten, whom he cast alongside fellow Mercury Theatre players like Agnes Moorehead, Everett Sloane, Ruth Warrick and Dolores del Rio. Welles even cast his business manager, Jack Moss, as the film’s pudgy assassin Banat. The Hollywood wunderkind had planned out his vision of Journey into Fear so thoroughly (and seemingly, so impenetrably) that it seemed safe to assume it would live up to, if not match, his previous efforts.
But, to quote the narrator of Ambersons: “something had happened.”
Welles’s arrogance, coupled with negative feedback during preview screenings, gave Ambersons a first class ticket to the RKO editing lab, where the studio cut nearly forty minutes and slapped on a happy ending. By the time Welles realized what had happened, the damage — both to the film and his relationship with RKO — had been done. Journey into Fear quickly became a footnote, a minor inconvenience for Welles as he tried to regain control of Ambersons and salvage footage from his aborted 1942 documentary It’s All True. Neither came to fruition. Exhausted, he stepped down from the directing chair in the eleventh hour, and selected Norman Foster, a collaborator on It’s All True, as his replacement.
That the film credits Foster as the sole director is a gross misnomer, especially given the supreme irony of a pre-credits scene directed by Welles. It’s as if he’s subtly assuring us that his fingerprints haven’t been scrubbed away. The scene plays out sans dialogue, as we ride a swooping crane shot into the hotel room of Banat. He prepares his weapon carefully, while a skipping record cuts through the silence and compounds the foreboding sense of unease drummed up by the insinuated shadows. It is a masterful showcase, on par with any of Welles’s bits from Kane or Ambersons despite its relative obscurity. The tension is promptly softened up by the opening credits, though, and by the time we resume, its apparent that Foster has planted his directorial flag.
The plot of Journey into Fear is a quagmire, a means of placing characters in peril without having to suspend too much belief. The who and why are better left unsaid, as they would likely deter from the tension we are meant to be feeling in a given moment. Howard Graham (Cotten) and his wife Stephanie (Warrick) are traveling in Turkey, where they find themselves targeted by Nazi agents. One of them goes as far as to try and assassinate them during a nightclub performance. A chummy local (Sloane) sees they obtain the protection of Colonel Haki (Welles), who promises to help them exit the country in secret.
Foster’s direction is noticeably less dynamic than Welles’s, but he does manage a strong sense of disorientation in these early scenes. The Turkish atmosphere is manic and claustrophobic, putting us directly in the couple’s shoes as they grasp for some semblance of comfort. Howard’s interactions with Haki are a joy to watch; an entertaining contrast of characters as much as it is a chance for Cotten and Welles (an underrated acting pair) to engage in a battle of wits. “Ah, you have [the] advantage over the soldier, Mr. Graham,” Haki roars, with enough bravado to shake the room, “You can run away without being a coward!”
Regrettably, these energetic sparks grow increasingly scarce as Howard boards a steamer ship to Batumi. It is here, entering the second act, that I suspect many of the cuts were made to shorten the film’s runtime (more on that later). Howard stumbles upon a rogue gallery of potential Nazis, each one more suspicious than the next, but their erratic behavior and unexpected detours into comedy feel mismatched at best. Perhaps it is the departure of Welles’s character that is to blame, or Foster’s tenure with the lightweight Charlie Chan series. Though, to be fair, the latter excuse doesn’t explain the bursts of style that appear on occasion, like the shot of Howard loading a gun in a mirror reflection, or the Dutch angle of him exiting the ship. Welles was later asked if he had any input on these scenes, and his response was predictably cagey: “Well, we all did — whoever was nearest the camera, there was no other way to get it made, because of the difficulties. It was a terrible situation… It was a collaborative effort.”
The notion of a “collaborative effort” is opened up to further scrutiny in the pulsing finale, where Howard arrives on land and finds himself fighting for his life atop a hotel building. The unmistakably Wellesian onslaught of elongated angles, tight shots, and gorgeously placed shadows is in full effect, driving the scene to nearly unbearable heights (literally and figuratively) before culminating in a shot of Banat tumbling to his death. Noir enthusiasts and cinephiles will note the similarities between this climactic fight and that of Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece Blade Runner. I don’t know if Scott is paying direct homage, but it is homage nonetheless.
At some point, a 91-minute cut of Journey into Fear existed. It’s impossible to say whether it made more sense, or flowed more naturally from its first to second act, as it was never previewed for audiences. By then, however, RKO had had enough. They promptly fired Welles after seeing the cut and re-edited the film themselves, trimming it down to an anemic 68 minutes. “It was horrible what they did with it,” he later said, “Because it was quite a good script that we did it should have been a very decent picture.” The film wound up losing $193,000 at the box office. Welles, meanwhile, gained a reputation as a difficult artist who couldn’t make a viable hit to save his life. Journey into Fear left such a blemish, in fact, that his next film, The Stranger (1946), was seen as a comeback; a chance to prove that he could in fact make “conventional” like everyone else.
I’m not going to sit here and pretend that Journey into Fear is Welles’s “lost masterpiece.” It’s flighty and inconsistent, and the lousy editing drops it well below the standard set by Kane and Ambersons. Welles is distracted and handicapped here, and it shows. (Later in life, he tried to distance himself from the film.) Still, there are moments of clarity that signify not only Welles’s involvement, but a crucial transition from the grand flourishes of his first two films to the brutal poetry of his subsequent outings. The climactic fight prefaces the dizzying clocktower scene in The Stranger, just as the pre-credits teaser would eventually blossom into the virtuoso opening of Touch of Evil. These moments are comparable to hearing a great musician record a demo; the surface may be rough, but the raw talent is undeniable.
Welles never officially copped to how much of Journey he directed, but maybe that was part of his mythos. Maybe he wanted us to seek out the moments for ourselves, just as a charismatic, arrogant showman would.
TRIVIA: Welles and Dolores del Rio, who had been carrying on an affair for several years, ended their relationship shortly after the film’s release.
–Danilo Castro for Classic Movie Hub
Danilo Castro is a film noir specialist and Contributing Writer for Classic Movie Hub. You can read more of Danilo’s articles and reviews at the Film Noir Archive, or you can follow Danilo on Twitter @DaniloSCastro.