Journey Into Fear is an odd hodgepodge of a film, a mashup of elements that may have, under different circumstances, coalesced into more than the sum of its parts. As it is, the potential is clear, the elements themselves promising, but the end result is a bad thriller made entertaining through no fault of its actual subject matter. Written by Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten, who also starred; directed by Norman Foster, who didn't read the book; and peopled with Citizen Kane veterans and Welles' touches of atmosphere and mood, the film also bears the scars of Production Code interference.
The story, in as much as it matters, describes an American engineer's (Cotten) involuntary entanglement in foreign intrigue. On a brief business trip to Istanbul with his wife, Howard Graham is soon whisked away to a cabaret, where he meets a mysterious dancer (Dolores del Rio, at the time romantically attached to Welles) and is almost murdered. He then finds himself on a whirlwind journey out of the country, prompted by Welles' police chief Haki and not allowed to see his wife. Graham spends most of the rest of the film on a steamer, with eccentric characters all about, any of whom may be the assassin or a double agent, and one of whom is the dancer, Josette. The film ends with a standard climactic chase involving windows and ledges, and is over almost before you can figure out whose side everyone's on.
With a plot like that, the film's overall quality and enjoyment could go either way. In this case, it goes both—as a film, it's too confusing and quite shallow to be good, though as entertainment there is enough to keep one going, as long as one doesn't think too hard. Cotten plays his typical, absolutely clueless American (think Holly Martins from The Third Man, only far less capable or interesting) but the side characters make up for him. Welles' police chief is larger than life and ambiguously helpful. The denizens of the boat are bizarre characters with quirks who feel the need to corner Cotten to tell him about them. And the assassin, a Mr. Banat (I'm not giving anything away, he's viewed in the first scene), never speaks a line yet exudes a peculiar menace. A short, round little man with glasses, at first glance he seems the least dangerous person in the lineup. But he's heralded by a phonograph playing a scratchy old French song, which sets him up in the first scene and then recurs to great effect on the boat. There's also a scene where the camera lingers on him eating dinner across from Cotten, who is now convinced the man is trying to kill him, and it's somehow both absurd and suspenseful. The film is physically very dark, and mostly shot in the low interiors of the steamer, making it a suitably claustrophobic and noirish film, if not pretty.
The problems with the film are not all due to the writers, cast and crew. Many can be traced to sensitive foreign relations during the war and a desire on the part of the studio and the Hays Office (precursor to the MPAA) to remove anything that might be deemed offensive, either sexually or nationalistically, from the film. Names were changed, ethnicities blurred, and in general confusion about who was who reigned to the point where the director admitted to often not knowing what was going on. But even apart from these problems, it plays like a film that was meant to be quick and fun, not anyone's masterpiece or comment on society. As such, it doesn't fail as much as it might have and it's worth it for thriller fans and Welles completists.