Journey into Fear was Welles' attempt to close out his RKO contract by writing and producing it simultaneously alongside The Magnificent Ambersons. Since Welles put in uncredited work as a writer (the screenplay is attributed to Joseph Cotten!), along with acting in it, there seems to be the assumption that he also helped direct it. Having not read Hello, Americans yet, I want to withhold judgement. It is odd how self-effacing this film's credits are. No production or writing credits, and Welles gets billed last on the opening credits (without even so much as a "And Featuring"). He gets billed below a nightclub magician in only one scene! Makes you wonder if Welles was trying to wash his hands of a disappointing film or if the studio was trying to punish their prodigal son.
Because whatever role Welles had in the film's direction, his stamp is all over the film. His regulars fill out the cast, his mistress Dolores Del Rio gets top billing, there are visionary experiments with sound design, and the visual design is stunning.
So now to dispense with a plot summary. Joseph Cotten is the whiniest American naval gunnery expert ever and he's America's man in Turkey, helping the Turks rebuild their navy. I wonder if it was because none of his co-workers could stand him that he got this plum assignment. The upshot is, now he's the Nazi's number one target in Turkey since any replacement would take months to arrive. After a failed assassination attempt, Colonel Haki (Orson Welles), head of Turkish intelligence, all but forces him onto a dirty freighter at gunpoint, since the Nazis are expecting him to leave by train. Unfortunately, it seems like there is at least one German agent upon the boat with him, and given the eccentricities of his fellow passengers, Cotten's chances of pegging the right passenger for a Nazi are pretty unlikely.
First of all, this has to be a very dispiriting film to watch from an acting standpoint. Whereas most of Welles' other projects show an ability to cast to type, if not cast greats. Unfortunately, Joseph Cotten shows none of the ability that he showed in Citizen Kane or later in The Third Man. He's a whiny stuffed shirt for most of the picture, who manages to make even the most reasonable reactions come off as insufferable.
Meanwhile, Welles puts in a sleepwalking performance that relies mostly on his imposing bulk and a passable (for the 40s at least) Turkish accent. This despite the fact that the type, a possibly corrupt authority figure who is sympathetic mostly for his cleverness, is one that Welles would continuously return to. Here though, he's mostly trying to hit his mark, and it's hard to blame him since he was doing two films at once.
The rest of the cast is just kind of "meh", except when they become annoying. As for Dolores Del Rio, she is attractive, but she possesses little sex appeal and I see no threat of her successfully seducing Cotten.
Then too, the tone of this film is weirdly inconsistent, veering between fish out of water comedy and tense thriller. Cotten's character seems as threatened by his lack of a topcoat as by the fact that Nazis are after him. By the final half hour, though, JiF almost feels like some nightmarish fantasy where xenophobia and paranoia are inextricably mixed and Cotten's inability to simply go from point A to point B becomes an existential crisis.
Because the elements of design, plot and direction in the film take on a life of their own and the flat acting fades into the weird dream reality of the movie. Sound blots out important information from both characters and audience. Turkish and German dialogue is left mostly untranslated. Cotten's stalkers on board turn out to be friends or mere mischief makers, while a pleasant acquaintance turns out to be the man plotting his death. There is an entire sequence devoted to Joseph Cotten's inability to find a convenient place to hide his gun, and another, upon his subsequent loss of it, on his inability to find another. Even the voiceover narrative, a letter written with the tone of a man talking from beyond the grave, turns out to be composed after the climax of the film.
There is also a very vague allegorical level here, with Cotten's well-meaning but befuddled researcher becoming a two-fisted man of action when his way of life is threatened, and while it is set up, Cotten's unlikeability and a lack of real emotion in the film undermines the message.
Certainly, Journey into Fear is no Touch of Evil or even another The Stranger. It lacks the ambition of any of Welles' later work, and yet fails at what little it aims for. At the same time, it suggests the idea of Welles as an unpretentious b-movie maker, who might have produced more satisfying work and not burned out so spectacularly.