A man named John Talbot (Barry Newman) provokes a fight with some cops in a small town in Louisiana by violently insisting on drink on the Holy Sunday - the fiend. Turns out beating up a cop is a crime in Louisiana, too, and so Talbot finds himself in front of a judge. Not surprisingly, Talbot - a professional diver and man of violence, it seems - is being sought for some heavier crimes too. Alas/fortunately (depending on one's perspective), courtroom security is very lax, so Talbot manages to steal the gun of a guard, shoots another one, and takes a woman we will later learn is Sarah Ruthven (Suzy Kendall), the daughter of an oil millionaire, hostage.
This being an action thriller from the 70s, it's time for an epic car chase. Not that the chase'll do Talbot much good in the long run - he may manage to evade the cops, but soon enough finds himself and his hostage in the hands of the shady ex-cop Jablonsky (Dolph Sweet). Jablonsky is planning to sell the pair to Sarah's father.
His plan goes well enough. There is, however something strange going on in Ruthven's (Ray McAnally) place. Oil millionaire or not, he seems to be taking orders from two men he calls his "guests" - a guy named Vyland (John Vernon) and his partner/bodyguard Royale (Ben Kingsley in pre-Uwe-Boll days when he was still in the possession of a certain amount of hair). Vyland and Royale don't want to deliver Talbot to the police, but have plans of their own for the man. They'd be surprised if they knew what plans Talbot has for them.
Sometimes, I do understand the feeling of those frequently annoying "movies were better in the past, when the grass was greener and I had to climb Mount Everest on my way to school" people. At least, I have a hard time imagining a contemporary action-heavy thriller to not end in a wild shoot-out with about three dozen explosions, but instead a tight and claustrophobic scene of people talking under pressure, and that's a shame for contemporary cinema.
It's not as if Fear is the Key didn't already have more than its share of outward action before its tight talking finale. In fact, the film's series of car chases, fist fights and a bit of silent infiltration is as generous as it is varied, and I would not at all be surprised to hear that scriptwriter Robert Carrington (who didn't write many movies, but counts Wait Until Dark among the number he did write) was going into writing the script with the idea of packing in as much of the sort of action and excitement this kind of pot-boiler asks for, but never once to repeat the same kind of action scene, a technique that turns what could be a very formulaic film into one that feels inventive and sometimes even surprising, even though the actual plot is rather preposterously over-cooked and silly.
Fear's director Michael (J.) Tuchner is an interesting case: he began his career with a handful of very good to very interesting films in various genres during the first half of the 70s (Villain with Richard Burton being an especially remarkable one), only to fall into the TV directing hole, never to climb out of it again. In the film at hand, the Brit Tuchner shows himself as more than adept at the type of 70s action thriller with elements of the conspiracy thriller I've always seen as a particularly American genre, giving his film a relentless pace while still finding time and room to build up a sense of place and time, and let characterization happen through small gestures of his actors as well as (alas) one or two a bit too tellingly symbolic shots.
Barry Newman is a perfect choice for the lead role. The actor projects the appropriate mixture of everyman-like attitude and a tense energy that teeters on the edge of something very dark and violent; he also manages to project physical menace without having a physique that reads as physically menacing.
So it's a fine film all-around, and if you're in the market for a bit of 70s style action thriller without wanting to go the grindhouse way, Fear Is The Key should not disappoint.