Sunday, June 1, 2014
Journey into Fear (1943) was directed by Norman Foster, but looks more like an Orson Welles picture. The film also stars nearly all of Welles' Mercury Theater troupe: Joseph Cotten, Ruth Warrick, Agnes Moorehead, Everett Sloane, and Orson Welles. The exception is Dolores del Río, the female lead.
Foster was a "crowd scene extra" in about 20 films in the 1930s. Realizing his acting career was not going to happen, he turned to directing. He cut his teeth in B-movies, mostly Mr. Moto and Charlie Chan pictues. The best of these was probably Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (1939). In 1941, Orson Welles hired Foster to work on an RKO picture called It's All True. It's All True is one of the most famous non-pictures of all time. Welles had just finished his second magnum opus, The Magnificent Ambersons, but the film wasn't edited yet. Nelson Rockefeller, the heir to the oil fortune, had been appointed Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs in the State Department by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. With Nazi involvement in South America strong and America gearing up for possible involvement in World War II, Roosevelt very much wanted to reinforce American ties with Latin American nations.
Welles initially conceived a project focusing on the development of jazz, but Rockefeller -- who sat on the board of directors of RKO Pictures -- wanted a film about South America. Welles agreed to do the film both as a patriotic gesture and because he needed a project in case The Magnificent Ambersons crashed and burned. It's All True was to have three segments: "My Friend Bonito", about a boy who befriends a bull; "Carnaval", about the Carnival parade and festival in Rio; and "Jangadeiros", a true story about four sharecropper fishermen who made a perilous journey via raft to cross the sea and bring their grievances directly to President Getúlio Vargas.
Welles was a total workaholic. While second-unit work and post-production was moving forward on Ambersons, he was prepping It's All True and working with Joseph Cotten on a script for a fourth feature film, Journey Into Fear. He hired Foster (who was bilingual in Spanish and had close friends among the Mexican political elite) to cast "My Friend Bonito" and film second-unit footage in Mexico while Welles finished Ambersons. Foster began preproduction in August, and filming in September. Welles visited Mexico in mid-October, and screened footage for the segment for RKO execs at the end of October. Welles was thrilled with the footage, but peppered Foster with telegrams giving him explicit instructions on what to shoot.
Imperial Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Four days later, Welles decided to rush to South America to begin production on the rest of It's All True.
Welles then told Foster to suspend production on "My Friend Bonito" and that he was assigning him to direct Journey Into Fear. Foster was furious. "My Friend Bonito" was nearing the finish line, and despite cold weather, red tape, excessive delays, and numerous accidents, Foster probably could have finished the segment by January and won a co-directing credit on the film with Welles. Furthermore, "My Friend Bonito" was clearly going to be a masterpiece of cinema. The script of Journey Into Fear was a mess, Foster had not even read the script, there would be no time for pre-production, and Fear lacked artistic vision. An embarrassed and shame-faced Foster had to tell his cast and crew that "My Friend Bonito" was being shut down.
On December 26, Foster began work on Journey Into Fear. Welles had already done a great deal of storyboarding work on the film, and written extensive notes about how to handle the picture thematically. Foster was really only implementing these extensive notes, and had little input into the film. Yet, despite Welles' work, the film was not ready for shooting. It immediately went over-budget. Before Welles left on Feburary 4 for Rio, he managed to film his scenes as Colonel Haki (in fur coat and false nose) for Fear. In late February, Foster sent him four reels of footage that simply did not look very good. Foster bombarded Welles with telegrams full of questions, but Welles hadn't thought through any these issues and clammed up -- unresponsive to Foster's increasingly desperate pleas. Then Welles learned that the Haki footage he'd shot was ruined and he'd have to be sent a fur coat and false nose from Hollywood and have the scenes reshot in Brazil.
Meanwhile, Charles Koerner had taken over from Joseph Breen as head of RKO. He was furious at Welles for allowing Foster to go over-budget on Fear, and angry that Everett Sloane and Eustace Wyatt had to be flown from Los Angeles to New York City for reshoots on the film. Welles, meanwhile, was in serious trouble with Ambersons. The picture had bombed during pre-screenings, and the studio was pushing for a final print to be delivered by the end of April. Welles dictated a famous eight-page telegram to his editor, Robert Wise, telling him to recut the film and asking for reshoots of some scenes. He even threatened to pull Foster off Journey Into Fear and have him shoot these scenes. Wise, who'd shot the pickup shots, was furious. Then, at the end of April, he tried to have RKO fly Wise and Foster to Rio to finish cutting Ambersons there and help him with It's All True.
On April 18, Journey Into Fear had a shaky preview. Foster cabled Welles for information on how to make the picture better, but Welles ignored him. Foster made the decisions himself, began reshoots, and was still patching up the picture in October.
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Journey Into Fear isn't as bad as it sounds. Welles and Cotten intended the film to be a bit tongue-in-cheek, to point up the absurdity of thrillers. Cotten is an American arms dealer who is kidnapped by the Nazis so that he won't arm Turkish warships. He stumbles into deeper and deeper danger, never quite realizing why. He self-consciously jests about his predicament as a means of dealing with it. Welles plays a military policeman who is the sinister manipulator of everything that goes on in the film, while Ruth Warrick plays Cotten's wife as ditzy and uncomprehending. Jack Moss steals the film as a baby-faced, sleazy villain.
Foster isn't much of a comedy director, however. What begins as humorous (but not necessarily gut-burstingly funny) becomes distracting and disconcerting later in the picture. It never reaches the level of black comedy that, say, Alfred Hitchcock brought to his thrillers.
But the film is atmospheric, and contains some stunning set-pieces: A murder that happens during the black-out which occurs during a magician's act, and a gun battle on the ledge of a tall building in a blinding rainstorm.
RKO radically re-edited the film before its release. Welles wanted the picture to reflect the strengths of the novel by Eric Ambler: The weight of inaction, antiheroism, the terribly oppressive power of the state wielded by little men, etc. RKO removed a lot of this, and beefed up the action sequences. Welles threatened to sue, but in November 1942 he agreed to a compromise: He'd recut the last hour to make it move faster and be more exciting, he added a narration by Cotten, and he reshot the final scene. With this accomplished in December 1942, the film was released in February 1943. The picture was so over-edited, it ran a bare 65 minutes.