The Price of Fear

Hybrid movies, or those which blend and mix genres, can be fascinating when done well. When the recipe is a winner the results can be stimulating, the unexpected seasoning adding  freshness to even the most familiar servings. On the other hand, a poor choice of ingredients tends to produce something stodgy and rather bland. Sadly, I think that’s what happened with The Price of Fear (1956), a movie whose frankly generic title hoped to combine the fatalism of film noir and the soulfulness of melodrama, but it doesn’t really come off and, in spite of a few neat touches and smooth visuals, I came away from it feeling vaguely dissatisfied.

It opens in suitably noir fashion with dog track owner Dave Barrett (Lex Barker) finding out that his partner has sold his share in the business to mobster Frankie Edare (Warren Stevens), leading to the usual threats and recriminations. At about the same time financier Jessica Warren (Merle Oberon) is just leaving a night spot after an evening out. So, we have two strangers, the kind whose paths are unlikely to cross in the normal course of events. This is all about to change though for both when, to borrow a well-worn phrase, fate decides to put its finger upon them. In short, carelessness at the wheel sees Jessica run over an old gent out walking his dog, while Barrett has the misfortune not only to fall victim to a frame-up for the murder  of his ex-partner but then doubles up by stealing the hit and run vehicle while trying to duck out on a tail. Superficially, it’s  bad break for Barrett but an apparent stroke of luck for Jessica yet this is before their alibis get entangled with their passions, not to mention the relentless external pressure being applied by both the mob and the police.

Abner Biberman started out as an actor, playing parts ranging from comic hoodlums to a whole raft of east Asian types, before graduating to the director’s chair. The bulk of his work was in television, working on a host of well-known shows including The Twilight Zone and The Fugitive, but he also took charge of a number of cinema features. I found his handling of Gun for a Coward, for example, to be solid if fairly unremarkable. I think the same could be said of The Price of Fear, where it all looks attractive enough with a the kind of glossy patina one would expect of a mid-50s Universal-International picture. Still, it never really grips or fully engages you; the script is altogether too languidly paced for my liking and expends far too much time and energy on a not very interesting romance while simultaneously failing to exploit the underlying tensions and also skimming over the potentially absorbing ethical conundrums at the core of the tale.

Overall, I’d say the performances could also be categorized similarly – fair to middling. I can’t say I’ve ever been all that excited by Merle Oberon, frequently finding her a little too distant and emotionally detached. Former Tarzan Lex Barker is another who I find perfectly watchable but not a major draw. I think he does better, at least as his part is written, but the fact remains there’s not a lot of chemistry between the two stars and the central relationship, upon which so much of the drama depends, feels rather flat as a consequence. Charles Drake is usually worth watching in those third-billed roles he made his own and he doesn’t disappoint as the cop in charge of the investigation and Barker’s friend. Unfortunately though, his is essentially a supporting part and the film needed more punch from above. The tragic Gia Scala does catch the eye in her first credited role but it’s underwritten and represents something of a missed opportunity as far as I’m concerned. Warren Stevens is generally a good bet as oily types of questionable morality and provides good value – of course he was doing some interesting work around this time in various genres, taking one of the major roles in the fabulous Forbidden Planet that same year.

The Price of Fear is easy enough to track down for viewing. It was released in the US some years ago as part of a box set of noir-lite thrillers and then as (I think) a stand alone MOD disc. Additionally, there are Spanish and German DVDs available and there’s usually a very good quality online version to be found too. It’s an OK film, but hardly essential and, as I’ve mentioned on this site many times now, there are far better Universal titles that could be released yet remain frustratingly out of reach. All in all, it’s not an unpleasant way to pass an hour and quarter or thereabouts but don’t expect to be bowled over.

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28 thoughts on “The Price of Fear

  1. Shame this isn’t more fun. On Broadway it used to be said that most shows that fail do so due to a breach in style. I agree with you, movies that can surprise you by switching POV or even genre can be amazing but it is really hard to pull off. GET OUT is a recent film that I thought was very much a story in two distinct haves – I know which part I preferred but with worked well I thought.

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    • I haven’t seen that one myself. But it is difficult to maintain focus when a script seems uncertain of the direction it wants to pursue.
      Others may enjoy this film more of course; I didn’t hate it or even dislike it particularly, it just felt a bit lifeless and flat.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve had my eye on this movie for a while and was trying to track it down. I know it’s on DVD but Amazon sells it for $20. I’d like to see it at some time but after your review I guess I won’t spend the money on it.

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    • Margot, I wouldn’t want to put you off seeing the movie, but I wouldn’t want to advise anyone to drop something like $20 on it either. I will say that there is a very strong version up on YouTube which might be worth checking out to see how you feel about it.

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        • Sometimes I spot things there and on other occasions they completely pass me by, material comes and goes and I find it can be difficult to always keep up with what’s available at any given time.

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          • So, I watched it and agree with everything you say, Colin. It’s all not very interesting which mostly has to do with the non-existent chemistry between Oberon and Barker. It was one of Oberon’s last roles and she just seems to phone it in.

            Best are definitively the supporting roles, with Charles Drake and Warren Stevens being more than watchable. I always like Gia Scala but isn’t given much to do here.

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            • Glad you got to see it, and that you took the time to pop back in here to comment.
              I think it’s generally problematic when a plot is built around a romantic relationship and then those involved just don’t strike any sparks on the screen. It would take a pretty extraordinary film to overcome that flaw, and movies which are that extraordinary are few and far between.

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  3. Despite the fact we don’t expect to be “bowled over” by this type of fare,it’s nice to see these minor films getting some sort of showcase. Colin, you have more than done justice to the film and the people involved. Most film writers consider Biberman a far better actor than director, but despite all of that I’d still like to see more of his features. He did,at one point,seem to be Universal’s go to guy for minor thrillers before his extensive TV directing work.
    You mentioned GUN FOR A COWARD and that’s one I like a lot; even better than QUANTEZ although Toby and his posse will probably get on my case for mentioning that. I’ve never seen Biberman’s other Universal thrillers (THE LOOTERS, BEHIND THE HIGH WALL,RUNNING WILD,THE NIGHT RUNNER and FLOOD TIDE) but would really like too. I did see a very ropey “off air” copy of RUNNING WILD virtually unwatchable, and I liked what I saw a blend of undercover cop/JD drama. BEHIND THE HIGH WALL sounds interesting too especially with it’s rare lead role for Tom Tully.

    There are so many of these “lost” Universal crime/Noir programmers that we have discussed before,often featuring George Nader, and with interesting directors like Jack Arnold. With so many Euro companies now having access to Universal’s vaults (Koch, Explosive,Elephant,Indicator,ESC Editions and KIno Lorber USA) it’s small wonder more of these hard to find films don’t surface. The ideal way to go would be collections like the Kit Parker Columbia Noir Archive sets; the latest one recently posted over at Toby’s Hannibal 8. While some of the films in the Parker sets don’t really qualify as Noir it’s a good way to market them with Noir being so hip these days.
    I might add that the films in the Parker sets have already been released as very expensive Sony MOD discs but these nine film volumes are far easier on the pocket.

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    • I remember Biberman acting in Another Thin Man, His Girl Friday and Winchester ’73, and liked his work in all those.
      I’d have to disagree with your preference for Gun for a Coward over Quantez, John. While I like Biberman’s western just fine, I rate the spareness and depth of Quantez much higher myself.

      On those Columbia noir Blu-ray sets, I’m very attracted by them and their mix of titles. I’d be interested in them for sure, but only if they happen to be region free discs – I’m locked into Region B on Blu.

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        • Indeed, and I really ought to have mentioned that above. It’s very brief but it’s always worth noting instances of directors (even when they have worked extensively as actors) appearing on screen in their own movies.

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  4. Colin, you are not alone in rating QUANTEZ higher than GUN FOR A COWARD.
    Actually Harry Keller also made a few of those Universal Noir/Thriller programmers. I’ve never seen any of them but would really like to: VOICE IN THE MIRROR, STEP DOWN TO TERROR, MAN AFRAID.
    I would also be very keen to see the Jack Arnold entry OUTSIDE THE LAW which looks like a re-working of T MEN. Hopefully, some brave soul will issue a couple of collections of Universal mid to late 50’s Noir programmers, we live in hope.
    I’m glad the Parker sets are on your radar, Toby has just informed us that volume 3 is in the works. As the Sony MOD films were presented in high definition, there is no reason why these sets should not look great.
    As for the region coding, I guess we will have to wait until DVD Beaver review these sets.

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    • A third Columbia set is welcome news, John. Universal do license their movies but it’s a matter of who is taking them on and, of course, the condition of the masters available.
      Some of the boutique labels have dipped into Universal’s catalogue but they’re approaching tings in a different way and, probably due to the smaller domestic market, trading on the premium product notion. Regardless, I find the pricing, nudging up toward £20 in some cases, generally too rich or my blood.

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  5. Colin, I totally get your point regarding rising prices,
    being in the UK the much devalued £ does not help either,
    and the way things are looking it’s going to get a whole lot worse.
    I am certainly buying far less now than I was and I’ve also noticed
    that Arrow have really whacked up their prices lately,in the case of
    MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS over £20 seems steep for a film running little
    over an hour despite stellar extras.
    Arrow certainly have some tempting Noir releases now and in the pipeline,
    hopefully prices will reduce when they have been out for a while.
    Hopefully other companies will follow Kit Parker’s lead and “gang up” these
    second string Noirs into affordable packages.
    I’ve made this point many,many times before but there are some wonderful
    programmer crime thrillers originally made by Paramount,now owned
    by Universal that really deserve to be out there especially the films from the
    late 30’s early 40’s.

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    • John, It’s been suggested by some that the Arrow situation has been exacerbated to some extent by the uncertainty over HMV. If so, I’m not sure how that may resolve itself in the future. But the devalued currency is likely to have been another contributory factor.

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      • Yes,Colin,
        In the good old days before the Brexit debacle, I was on occasion able to splash out on the odd Twilight Time release,especially when the £ reached the now dizzy heights of 1.75 against the $.
        You get what you pay for with TT I have always found their transfers to be wonderful. Now,sadly TT releases are far too rich for my blood,especially with two recent releases being on my “most wanted” list.
        Firstly THE RIVERS EDGE,certainly the last great Allan Dwan film has been getting rave reviews. Soon to be released by TT is WARLOCK although I do believe there is an obscure Euro Blu Ray already out there. The only glimmer of hope is that in the past TT releases did not.if ever appear on other labels,now all that has changed. TT recently released UNTAMED and I understand Germany’s Explosive Media will soon release a Blu Ray edition. I hope Explosive are able to negotiate the rights for THE RIVERS EDGE and WARLOCK,furthermore I wish these were the sort of films Indicator would consider.

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        • I imagine those Twilight Time titles will appear in the UK or other European countries by the by, but I”m personally not that pleased with the heavy teal bias in the grading of a lot of the Fox movies. It’s something confined mainly to that studio, and can be found in nearly all the newer Fox HD masters, and it’s not pleasing to my eye. Some are more affected than others, such as Garden of Evil from Germany, but it’s something I notice in the majority of them.

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          • “Teal Bias”….jeepers! Colin, you are beginning to sound like DVD Beaver’s Gary 🙂
            I did actually splash out on the TT version of GARDEN OF EVIL which was fine by me. I also love the 2.55 ratio when prints can be sourced. I’ve been pretty pleased with most of the high def Fox titles but do have certain “issues” with some Warners Blu Ray’s of (Colour/CinemaScope) vintage pics.
            I also splashed out on TT’s HELL & HIGH WATER which I thought looked sensational,teal bias & all, and note that Koch will soon release this film in high def as well. At the rate that Koch and Explosive are going I am now prepared to wait for all future TT releases that I want.
            BTW thanks as always for sorting out (again) my horrible line breaks.

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            • I’ll admit that blue/green push bothers me more than might be the case with others. I will say that, color aside, Garden of Evil looks and sounds very well indeed.

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      • Colin, you’re right, l read that a third of Arrow’s sales came from HMV. Though not certain if that’s main reason for putting up their prices.

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        • I’m not sure either, Mike, but the two developments did seem to coincide. Either way, from a consumers point of view, it cannot be healthy to have Amazon possessing a virtual monopoly and the only alternatives direct sales via the labels themselves.

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  6. Re THE PRICE OF FEAR, the things you and others have said about it are absolutely fair. Without remembering it at all well now, I agree about with the general assessment. I was able to catch up with it about 20 years ago when American Movie Classics had a large Universal Package–including many U-I, earlier Universal and pre-1949 Paramount that they own–and ran a large number of those films, so it was possible to catch up with a lot of things, or have a chance to finally see them again.

    And I was keen to see this but found it weak. At the beginning it seemed to have an intriguing premise that was then dissipated in a disappointing script and realization, and yes, casting. I don’t mean Gia Scala–though I don’t even remember her role now so I was probably let down it wasn’t better–and certainly not Charles Drake or Warren Stevens, who are generally aptly cast and can be counted on to be good. But though I don’t like to get after actors if they play the material and are professional about it (I am more apt to jump on actors like Marlon Brando who ruin movies by caring only about themselves, often at the expense of what’s best for the movie), the two leads both have limitations and together don’t generate much heat. I’ve always found Oberon very cold (why she was cast as Cathy in WUTHERING HEIGHTS I’ll never know) and Lex Barker is straightforward and capable but bland. All of this said, though this was a conspicuously weak U-I movie for me when I saw it, I barely remember it now.

    What’s interesting though is that it does seem to follow a line within those seven Abner Biberman directed U-I movies–GUN FOR A COWARD is the only one in color (and ‘Scope) and the only Western. The others are all modest melodramas, generally crime or action based is some way, but all tending to be at least somewhat offbeat and not just along familiar lines. The only one I have never seen and want to is RUNNING WILD–I looked in on it on YouTube (which I mostly tend to resist) and it was not only fuzzy but stretched wide way beyond any non-anamorphic ratio, so just couldn’t do it.
    I can comment on the others. Some others here have seen THE LOOTERS (1955), his first, which is set in the mountains and had a good role for up and coming Ray Danton (who I guess met his wife-to-be Julie Adams on this) as a pretty dark character, which was always his best casting–it’s a satisfying, enjoyable movie. But the best, also with Danton (this time squarely in the lead) is a modest movie called THE NIGHT RUNNER (1957, which seemingly cannot be found)–with Colleen Miller, who as everyone knows is iconic for me for her role in FOUR GUNS TO THE BORDER, it’s a very intimate subject in which Danton is released from a mental hospital, possibly too early and settles into a little motel along the ocean where he falls in love with Miller, the daughter of an antagonistic owner. Interestingly, the beachside setting which draws out a less prosaic Biberman reappears in FLOOD TIDE (1958 and his last feature), and that’s a very interesting melodrama too, a character and relationship drama with George Nader, Cornell Borchers and Michel Ray as a troubled boy. And just to nail how inspired the California coast is for Biberman there is his best of four episodes on THE FUGITIVE–“Brass Ring” which I’ve always found one of the more memorable episodes of that series (but yes, there are a lot of those!)–it mostly takes place around the amusement pier and there is a very erotically charged affair, partly because the woman is Angie Dickinson, who had a nuanced way with that–you can feel the heat in the first moments of her and David Janssen together.

    So, Biberman has his moments–going for something a little more offbeat might not always work (I haven’t commented on BEHIND THE HIGH WALL, which I saw under not great circumstances but it fits in there too, even if it was a remake). And GUN FOR A COWARD is an unusual Western–and I do like it a lot. No, I don’t prefer it to QUANTEZ among Fred MacMurray Westerns–on the contrary, as directed by Harry Keller, QUANTEZ is a quietly magisterial existential fable and really tends to haunt each time one has seen it, but COWARD is an interesting drama in its own right, pretty well-realized by Biberman in most respects, and interestingly, these two Westerns share screenwriter R. Wright Campbell, whose style for dialogue in them is very distinctive–much as one might say of Burt Kennedy, though I’m not putting his contribution to the writing for the genre on a level with Burt Kennedy.

    In an article on Douglas Sirk at Universal-International in the 1950s, I identified the 20 directors through the course of the decade, who were core directors then in terms of directing 4 or more films. Biberman, of course, was one of those. Interestingly, he is one of only two who made all his features for the studio–the other is Jesse Hibbs, who had worked up from assistant director and made 11 movies, most of these probably appreciated a lot by folks here, like RIDE CLEAR OF DIABLO and WALK THE PROUD LAND; they are not all Westerns or all with Audie Murphy, but those parts of that body of work are important for Hibbs.

    Just a footnote–the key Universal-International movie in terms of the presence of those core directors (who moved up from all kinds of different jobs and artistic disciplines) was a favorite of most followers of this blog: It was WINCHESTER ’73 in 1950, the first film there of Anthony Mann, and three others were involved in some way, Jesse Hibbs as A.D., Nathan Juran as an art director, and yes, Abner Biberman as an actor.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Some useful and interesting contextualization there, Blake.

      I’ve not seen much of Biberman’s work but have been keen to watch The Looters, a film which I think pops up online but the less than stellar presentation I’ve come across has always seen me postponing it.

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  7. Small Correction: GUN FOR A COWARD is the only Biberman feature in color but FLOOD TIDE is in (black and white) ‘Scope.

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  8. Some very interesting U-I rarities mentioned among the comments above. They are the type of movie I like to seek out when possible. Sadly, most mentioned are difficult (at least) to find at all.

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