Here’s a film which deserves another look. Although largely dismissed in its time, it is in its own quiet way, a beauty. It gets better and better with each viewing.
Some backround: Journey Into Fear was shot during the waning days of Orson Welles’ amazingly productive but highly contentious stint at RKO Radio Pictures in the early 1940’s, which began with Citizen Kane followed by the director’s crown jewel, The Magnificent Ambersons.
According to Joseph Cotten (who played principal roles in each picture), The minute ‘Ambersons’ was finished, Orson invited me to join him in adapting ‘Journey Into Fear’ from Eric Ambler’s (1940) novel into a screenplay…(The movie) starred Dolores Del Rio and several Mercury actors, including Orson and me.
The actor noted in his 1987 autobiography, Joseph Cotten: Vanity Will Get You Somewhere (Avon Books), that Journey was the last Hollywood venture of the Mercury Theatre Company, founded in 1937 by Welles and producer (and later actor) John Houseman. This is significant because some of Hollywood’s finest character and supporting actors came out of the Mercury.
What buttresses Journey considerably are the many sharp, superlative bits contributed by Mercury players including Everett Sloane, Jack Moss, Richard Bennett, Ruth Warrick and Agnes Moorehead. In his memoir, Cotten concentrates on leading actress del Rio (pictured below) whom he describes as the second most beautiful woman in the world. (First, he wrote, was his second wife, Patricia Medina.)
del Rio is among the most famous Hollywood names to come from Mexico. She was born in Durango as Lolita Dolores Asunsolo de Martinez in 1905, began her move career in the mid-Twenties (Joanna, High Steppes, Pals First). Her career flourished well after the silents were history, and for some time she enjoyed the reputation — as Cotten attests — as one of Hollywood’s most beautiful actresses. She had many romances including an extended fling with — yes — Orson Welles.
The actress portrays in Journey the witty, world weary half of a touring night club dance team (her dissolute, card-shark partner is played by Jack Durant). She encounters Cotten’s character (Howard Graham, an American naval ordinance engineer advising the Turkish Navy in Istanbul) aboard a low-rent cargo boat described as little better than a floating slum. He is fleeing a Naxi-hired hit man. She is on to the next night club engagement.
Having noted that her dancing career is already into its 20th year, del Rio tells Cotten: I do not lie to you about my age…I was born in the Pyrenees. Mother and father were very poor. Cotten to del Rio: But honest, no doubt. del Rio to Cotten: Oh, no. My father was not at all honest.
Cotten as Graham find himself the target of an Nazi ring determined to eliminate him and his naval ordinance expertise before his return to the U.S.
His portrayal of Graham as a gentlemanly, mild-mannered corporate engineer is nicely offset by the sheer nastiness of the hit-man-for hire played by a portly and menacing Jack Moss (actually, Welles’ agent at the time). Welles portrays oversized Col. Haki, head of Turkish secret police, who must protect Graham at all costs. Graham’s wife is played by Ruth Warrick.
Journey Into Fear boasts of one of the most economic and chilling introductory scenes in movie history. It involves the hit man in a shabby Turkish hotel room combing his greasy hair, and loading a pistol — to the backround of scratched record on a gramophone in which the needle is stuck. The surrealistic sound of the scene is a chiller, and sets the tone of this gently graceful thriller.
Final note: Norman Foster is the director of record, but it’s understood Welles staged the several scenes involving himself as an actor. Journey Into Fear — see it.