Howard Graham (Cotten) is an American armaments engineer seeking to supply Turkey with naval guns. While he is in Istanbul with his wife Stephanie, Howard is lured away by Kopeikin, a man who claims to work for Graham's company. Kopeikin takes Graham to a nightclub with a magic act, and the magician calls Graham onto the stage. This is all an elaborate murder attempt, but the assassin, a creepy rotund man with glasses named Banat, accidentally shoots the magician instead.
The murder investigation brings Graham to the office of the chief of secret police in Istanbul, Col. Haki (Welles). Haki says that Banat works for a Nazi spy, Muller, and that the Nazis want to kill Graham to stop Turkey from getting the armaments. Graham must immediately flee across the Black Sea to the Soviet Union, then allied with the United States. Graham does so, leaving his wife behind in Haki's care, only to find that the murderers are on the boat too.
Journey into Fear was originally supposed to be the third film Welles directed for RKO, following Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. Welles brought in his entire Mercury troupe—Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Ruth Warrick, Everett Sloane, and others—but found himself spread too thin between finishing Ambersons, making this film, and starting on documentary It's All True. Welles brought in his protege Norman Foster to handle directing duties. Latter-day historians consider this film to have been co-directed by Foster and an uncredited Welles.note
Based on a novel by Eric Ambler. Joseph Cotten wrote the screenplay, for the only writing credit of his 40-year movie career.
- Battle in the Rain: The climactic fight occurs during a pouring rain storm as Graham, Haki, Muller, and Banat are all crawling out of the windows of the hotel and chasing each other around the ledges.
- Chekhov's Gun: Mathews gives Graham a ridiculous tiny pen knife to defend himself with; Graham grimaces. However, later he takes that pen knife and jams it into the steering wheel of the car, setting off the horn and creating a disturbance that allows him to escape.
- Chiaroscuro: Lots and lots of this, especially as people are skulking around the nooks and crannies of the ship on the Black Sea.
- Complexity Addiction: The Nazis, Muller and Banat. They concoct an elaborate stylish murder plot involving a stage magic show, rather than just dragging Graham into an alley and shooting him; then they go to all the trouble of smuggling him off the boat rather than, say, whacking him over the head and chucking him overboard.
- Deus ex Machina: Graham is being driven away to his certain doom when the car gets a flat tire, which eventually allows him to escape.
- Dies Wide Open: Graham is none too pleased to find Kuvetli, Haki's agent who was supposed to protect him on the boat, dead on the floor of his cabin.
- Door-Closes Ending: The swinging doors of the hotel restaurant closing behind Graham as he goes off to see his wife.
- Driving a Desk: Seen as the bad guys whisk Graham away from the boat.
- Epic Tracking Shot: Another hallmark of Welles's career—was Foster imitating his mentor?—seen a couple of times as Graham and Josette are making their way through the snaking passages of the steamship.
- Framing Device: Graham writing a letter to his wife Stephanie, trying to explain all that has transpired.
- Happily Married: Howard to his wife Stephanie. He goggles with astonishment when Josette's companion Gogo offers to sell her to Howard, and in his letter he takes pains to mention that nothing went on between him and Josette.
- Hitler Cam: OK, it isn't really an Orson Welles movie, but we still get his Signature Shot—an extreme version of it, actually, as a camera at the bottom of a portable stairway shows Graham at the very top looking down.
- MacGuffin: A rather unlikely one involving naval armaments.
- Spy Fiction: Martini flavored, with scary Nazis, an elaborate scheme, and a pretty girl to distract the hero (even if he is married).
- Throw-Away Guns: C'mon, what else is Banat going to do when he runs out of ammo and Graham is after him?
- Victoria's Secret Compartment: Where the corset-clad waitress at the nightclub puts Graham's tip.
- The Voiceless: Banat, the scary assassin, never says a word. (That's because he was played by a non-actor, namely, Orson Welles's manager.)
- Wicked Cultured: Banat the Nazi hitman totes around a record player that he uses to play opera music.