The Joseph Cotten Blogathon: Journey Into Fear (1943)
It’s the Joseph Cotten Blogathon, and I am terribly late – we have been talking so much about Hope & Glory that I totally forgot about Joseph Cotten.
And isn’t that what happened to a lot of us?
Cotten was a fine actor, one of Orson Welles’ troupe in the Mercury Theater, and he had a blazing career with many great movies, and fundamental roles – but we don’t remember him anymore.
So thanks to In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood for bringing him back with this blogathon – please point your browser in that direction and check out the many fine articles about Cotten’s extraordinary career.
Then get back here.
We are terribly late, and this is likely to be the late show in the blogathon – and we are going to check out Journey into Fear.
Let’s start with the source material: Journey into Fear, the movie, is based on Journey into Fear, the novel by Eric Ambler.
Ambler was one of the founding fathers of the modern spy thriller, and all of his novels were turned into movies.
The plot is deceptively linear: a British citizen, an engineer on his way back home after a gig in Turkey, is the target for assassination by German spies, as the storm gathers over Europe and World War II approaches.
The novel was written in 1940, at a time in which the war was not yet well defined. Ambler takes a basic plot and complicates it – entertainingly – by setting the action on a steamer crossing the Mediterranean, and by placing a diverse and intriguin cast of secondary characters.
The novel also features Colonel Haki, the head of Turkish espionage, that had a relevant role in The Mask of Dimitrios.
Two years after the book was published, Orson Welles decided to do an adaptation.
It became complicated, as most Welles productions were at the time: the director was still busy filming The Magnificent Ambersons, and so he handed the job on this, his last film for RKO, to Norman Foster, who had a long string of Mr Moto and Charlie Chan movies to his credit.
To this day, it is not clear how much of the film was directed by Foster and what parts were actually directed by Welles, who also wrote the screenplay together with the star Joseph Cotten.
WElles also designed the claustrophobic sets of the production, and supervised the shooting – dragging in everybody from his Mercury crew (including Agnes Moorehead in a small part), to his then-lover Dolores del Rio, to his driver and his secretary and other members of the technical cast for bit parts. Unsurprisingly, this being an Orson Welles movie, the film features a magic show.
The plot follows more or less the Ambler original, casting Cotten as American armaments engineer Graham (Cotten) and his wife (Ruth Warrick) find themselves caught in a plot-and-counterplot spy game in which Graham becomes the pawn and decoy of diabolical Colonel Haki (Welles, of course) as he tries to lure the German spies out in the open.
A tight little parcel of paranoia, mistrust and danger, the plot of Ambler’s novel is brought to the screen with class and inventiveness as typical of Orson Welles.
It could have been a masterpiece.
But then something went wrong, and what’s left of the movie is a mess.
It is a beautiful mess, and if you have the opportunity to watch it in its 2005 restored version, you’ll find the black and white photography by Karl Struss to be positively breathtaking.
Ah, you have this advantage over the soldier, Mr. Graham. You can run away without being a coward.
Cotten is convincing in the role of a honest and increasingly scared man caught in a game far larger than he is, and while Graham has many similarities with Holly in The Third Man, Cotten nuanced performance makes the character individual and original. As mentioned before, Cotten had also written the screenplay, together with the uncredited Welles.
Dolores del Rio is absolutely stunning in the role of an exotic dancer (Ambler’s original cast was a courtesan, but RKO was not happy with the idea) and Welles has a lot of fun in the role of the Turkish mastermind.
But the movie is a mess, and the plot does not hang together.
Welles and Foster and Cotten are not to blame, though – even if Welles has a part of the responsibility.
Shot in six days, the movie was left to the tender cares of RKO while Welles rushed to Rio to film his next project.
Faced with the need to do something of the film, somebody at RKO butchered it and re-mounted it, cutting it down to 58 minutes.
The film was shown in New York without informing Welles.
The result was dismal. Losing all of its (little) faith in the project, RKO basically scrapped all the copies they had of the movie.
Welles raged and was finally allowed to shoot a finale, and a pre-titles sequence bringing the total runtime to 68 minutes. The finale alone is worth the price of admission.
Welles also added a voice-over, by Joseph Cotten, trying to tie together the loose ends resulting from the cutting of scenes now scrapped and impossible to recover.
The result is still a mess, but it’s also a monument to what might have been, and it’s beautiful to behold.