Journey into Fear (1943). 68 minutes. Directed by Norman Foster. Starring Joseph Cotten (as Howard Graham), Dolores del Río (as Josette Martel), Ruth Warrick (as Stephanie Graham), Agnes Moorehead (as Mrs. Matthews), Jack Durant (as Gogo), Everett Sloane (as Kopeikin), Eustace Wyatt (as Professor Haller/Muller), Frank Readick (as Matthews), Edgar Barrier (as Kuvetli), Jack Moss (as Banat), Stefan Schnabel (as purser), Richard Bennett (as captain), and Orson Welles (as Colonel Haki). Screenplay by Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles.
Journey into Fear features Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre stock players in a story about a hapless American who gets caught up in a European espionage plot during World War Two. The rushed production required the actors to work in many uncredited capacities, and the movie was certainly not the artistic focus of Welles’s time at RKO in the early 1940s—a period that included Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), and the ambitious and unfinished It’s All True. But Journey Into Fear is a wonderful picture in its own right, laden with shadows, claustrophobic interiors, and mysterious foreigners. If you enjoyed Joseph Cotten in The Third Man (1949), you will find much to like in his work here.
During the Second World War, American armaments engineer Howard Graham arrives in Istanbul with his wife to make a deal with the Turkish navy. Upon checking into his hotel, he is immediately accosted by Kopeikin, a representative from his corporation in Turkey. Kopeikin insists that they dine together, and afterwards he whisks Graham off to a nightclub without his coat and hat. Once there Graham is shot at by a mysterious man. The Turkish secret police, led by Colonel Haki, determine that there is a Nazi plot underfoot to murder Graham in order to keep him from arming the Turks and that the man who shot at him is a Turk named Banat. Haki orders Graham aboard a ship sailing for Batumi, Georgia to get him out harm’s way.
On board the ship, Graham is reunited with performers from the nightclub and soon becomes aware that his assassin Banat is among the passengers. Graham pleads with the crew to let him land prematurely, but they will not accommodate him. Meanwhile, Graham learns that a passenger on the ship named Professor Haller is actually Muller, a German agent who is working with Banat to kill Graham. Muller forces Graham off the ship at Batumi, but through a clever diversion Graham escapes to a hotel where both his wife and Colonel Haki have arrived. During a climactic chase, he and Haki kill Muller and Banat. In the final scene Graham completes a letter to his wife in which he explains everything that has occurred since they were separated, and he tells Haki that he pursued Banat when he could have given up because he was tired of letting things happen to him.
Journey into Fear creates a fair amount of tension and suspense, and one of the ways that it does this is through the creative use of sound. For example, in the scene where Colonel Haki meets with Graham and Kopeikin in the office of the Turkish secret police, we hear the loud, abrasive noise of the telegraph machine, which threatens to eclipse the conversation before it is turned off. It makes us uncomfortable, unsure, encouraging us to suspect that something is wrong even in the office of characters whom we are supposed to trust.
Sound in this movie is a way of identifying troubling moments and threatening characters. Journey into Fear begins with footage shown before the credits, where we see the man whom we will come to know as Banat grooming himself as a record plays on a small portable machine. It skips horribly in many places but Banat does not move to correct it. The device of the skipping record helps us to identify Banat’s presence later in the movie, but it also introduces us to his psychology. There is a strong desire on our part to stop that record. The noise is unsettling and worrisome, and we instinctively know that anyone who could let it play at length in such a way is unsettling and worrisome, too. Given that Banat never speaks, his odd habit of letting records skip speaks for him. It is one of the ways that the movie subtly characterizes individuals through more than just dialogue.
Banat sticks out physically with his enormous girth and greasy hair, but on board the ship the unease that accompanies him actually makes him fit in with the other passengers fairly well. Every character that the protagonist Howard Graham encounters on the water seems duplicitous. The Turkish Kuvetli is an agent put by Haki on the ship to protect Graham, but he introduces himself nervously as a tobacconist. And then there is Muller, who at first introduces himself as Professor Haller, a German archaeologist living outside of his homeland for political reasons. As it turns out, he is an agent of the Reich and is there with Banat to ensure the demise of Graham. But even the friendly characters cause us to worry. Take dancer Josette Martel for example: she seems sincere and fond of Graham, but when we meet her at the nightclub in Istanbul, she is dressed in a strange cat costume and behaves in an aloof manner. Is she a predator? Does she really have Graham’s best interests at heart? Her partner Gogo is decidedly sinister, suggesting that he will “sell” Josette to Graham for the right price—and these are the characters that Graham has the deepest relationships with on board.
Of course, Graham’s behavior is also not ideal. For example, we know that Graham is devoted to his wife as he often speaks of her with concern to other characters (he has abandoned her in a foreign country, after all), but he is oddly silent about this in his conversations with the alluring Josette. In addition to omitting important details about himself, he also behaves weakly. He allows himself to be whisked away by the apparently well-meaning Kopeikin to the nightclub without his hat and coat. The absence of these articles of clothing, so essential to the well-dressed 1940s man, is emphasized several times, underscoring Graham’s discomfort and the whirlwind nature of his journey but also his inability to insist on small details like this for his own benefit. He is something of a pushover, truth be told, willing to go out in incomplete dress and a vulnerable state rather than assert himself.
We might also observe that as if to appeal to and placate Graham, nearly all of the passengers in Journey into Fear introduce themselves as kindred spirits, innocent and unassertive types. Nearly all of them describe themselves as apolitical or politically neutral as the vessel departs Istanbul—as people who are outside of the war that is consuming the world. Yet it turns out that the outsiders are insiders, agents, and tools. In other words, they are very political.
All of the characters in question thus participate in a subtext concerning the relationship between acting and truth. For example, Matthews, the Englishman who helps Graham evade Muller and Banat, introduces himself as neutral at first. We later learn that he feigns socialist tendencies as a way of disturbing his shrewish wife, but, as he explains to Graham, the more he pretends to be a revolutionary socialist, the more he finds he truly is one. Unlike the other characters, who pretend to be neutral to mask their engagement with dangerous political intrigue and glide along successfully, Matthews pretends to be something extreme in order to disturb and provoke, only to find that pretending something is the key to being something. He is the one to arm Graham with the tools that become most instrumental to his escape—a pointed umbrella and the tiny pocket knife that he uses to jam into the car horn while parked in the city to cause a distraction. Matthews’s story suggests that what we pretend to be is often not far away from what we are.
Although passenger identities shift and contract, the ship environment contributes to an atmosphere of tension and rigidness laced with mental and physical claustrophobia. Characters are crammed into small quarters, walls are paper thin, doors have large vents at the top and carry noise from the hallway; there is little privacy. We are not treated to vast panoramas glimpsed by Graham and his fellow passengers as they mill about the deck. Instead, the deck is covered with curtained panels that block out the light and scenic views. Strolls around the ship do not involve leisure. They reveal characters plotting, scheming, confiding vital information, desperately trying not to be overheard. It is a tense journey, the food is bad, and the captain seems like a crackpot—laughing at Graham’s suggestion that he be put off the ship in an emergency landing, cackling at the thought that there is a bad man involved in a plot to kill him. Is the captain a part of the plot to murder Graham? Or is he just loopy, and which is worse? The movie is content to let him merely function as yet another creep.
As a film noir, Journey into Fear is one of many 1940s movies that focus on the experience of a naïve American who falls prey to the wiles and intrigues of scheming Europeans who are not what they seem, reminding us perhaps in the process of authors like Henry James who were similarly preoccupied with the way in which Americans could be easy prey abroad. Graham does seem ill-prepared for political subterfuge, and Joseph Cotten as Graham deftly conveys fish-out-of-water panic. But while Graham comes off as astonished and estranged, he is also resourceful, quick-witted, and gallant. We would never think of Graham as stupid. He is not a stereotype, but rather an authentic-seeming person who, although caught unawares, tries to fend for himself in a pinch.
The film noir projects of the 1940s strive to make us feel trapped, unsettled, and enveloped in shadow, both literal and metaphorical. The scene where Graham searches through Banat’s room at night looking for the killer’s gun serves as a good illustration of the thematic way that Journey into Fear interacts with classic noir imagery and symbolism. As he searches, small pockets of the dark room are illuminated with the feeble help of the matches he strikes. We struggle to see clearly as match after match flares up and goes out in the dim room. The scene relates to Graham’s struggle to survive: he is searching for the means to his own preservation but the help available to him is limited in the murky world he has fallen into.
But unlike the plots of many other noir films, this movie affords its protagonist an escape. He manages to leave Banat’s room, disembark from the ship, and finally overcome the assassination plot that drives the story—he finds a path to becoming a hero. By allowing the character a way out, Journey into Fear declines to more fully engage with noir pessimism. By the time Cotten made The Third Man in 1949, his version of this persona would not find such an easy way to triumph, the post-war world being a very different place.