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Fear Is the Key (1972)

As this underrated British film from 1972 opens, we watch and listen to a man (Barry Newman) on a short-wave radio talking to a small cargo plane flying somewhere over the Gulf of Mexico. Suddenly the plane’s pilot screams out that another aircraft is firing on them. Cue gunfire, bullet strikes, screams, a long dive and a crash into the ocean . . .

Three years later we meet the man again. His name is John Talbot and he is looking for trouble on the Louisiana coast – which he finds by slugging some cops in a bar, insulting a judge, making a courtroom escape and kidnapping oil heiress Sarah Ruthven (Suzy Kendall) in a stolen Gran Torino.

He then spends 20-odd minutes engaged in one of the longest car chases ever filmed as he screeches and swerves down city streets and across cane fields, smashing through roadblocks.

We still have no idea what this guy’s motivation is, and it’s a good forty minutes before any motivation begins to appear, and an hour before the point of the film is revealed.

It turns out that Talbot has staged things in order to get close to a character called Vyland (John Vernon) who was responsible for the death of Talbot’s family three years ago by causing the plane crash we heard at the beginning of the film. Vyland now intends to recover the plane’s precious cargo from the seabed using a salvaged submersible, and – coincidentally – Talbot is a marine engineer and underwater salvage expert who offers his help.

Once motivation and plot are established, the final forty minutes are satisfyingly brutal and filled to the brim with nail-biting revenge. Talbot lands a submersible containing himself, Vyland and henchman Royale (a young Ben Kingsley) on the seabed and then vents the oxygen supply.

Everyone has about six minutes to live unless Vyland confesses to the murders and his criminal activities (the authorities are listening on the surface).

Vyland thinks it’s a bluff but Talbot points out that his wife, child and brother are already inside the nearby plane and he doesn’t mind joining them!

Based on a novel by Alistair Maclean.

John Talbot
Barry Newman
Sarah Ruthven
Suzy Kendall
John Vernon
Dolph Sweet
Ben Kingsley
Ray McAnally
Peter Marinker
Judge Mollison
Elliott Sullivan
Roland Brand
Tony Anholt

Michael Tuchner