Monday, March 2, 2015

The Fearmakers (1958)

Jacques Tourneur first attracted attention as a director as part of Val Lewton horror B-movie unit at RKO in the 40s, helming such classics of subtle horror as Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man before moving on to direct one of the greats of film noir, Out of the Past. His later movies don’t get so much attention, apart from Curse of the Demon (generally recognised as one of the finest horror films ever made). This is a little unfair. His 1957 film noir Nightfall is quite superb. His 1958 film The Fearmakers seems to have fallen through the cracks altogether and that’s a great pity.

The Fearmakers concerns Alan Eaton (Dana Andrews), a Korean War veteran who spent two years being brainwashed in a North Korean prisoner-of-war camp. But while the brainwashing angle is significant it’s not significant in the obvious way you might expect. This film is nothing at all like brainwashing movies such as The Manchurian Candidate.

After being released from a veterans’ hospital Eaton returns to Washington where he is a partner in a public relations firm. On the airliner bound for the capital he encounters Dr Gregory Jessup (Oliver Blake). Jessup tells Eaton he is a nuclear physicist who wants to stop nuclear war. He belongs to an organisation dedicated to doing just that. Everyone wants peace, don’t they? Alan Eaton however is no fool and being in public relations he knows all about the ways people can be manipulated by loaded questions. He is, quite rightly, suspicious of people like Dr Jessup who peddle simply answers for their own ends.

There is a nasty surprise waiting for Eaton is Washington. His partner in the PR business is dead, and the day before he died he sold out the business to the fast-talking rather sleazy Jim McGinnis (Dick Foran). Eaton now has no business to return to, and the money his partner got for the business has disappeared. Eaton is jobless and penniless. Then McGinnis pulls another surprise. Eaton can work for him as a consultant. It will mean a fat salary for very little work.

At this stage Eaton is uneasy about McGinnis but he puts this down to his dislike of pushy fast-talkers. Then he meets reporter Rodney Hillyer (Joel Marston) who suggests that the circumstances of the death of Eaton’s partner were not entirely straightforward. In fact Hillyer suspects murder. And then Eaton has a talk with an old friend, Senator Walder (Roy Gordon), who informs him that McGinnis has attracted a lot of new clients to Eaton’s old firm, and that some of these clients are very unsavoury indeed.

Eaton decides to take up McGinnis’s offer of the consultancy job but his real intention is to do a bit of nosing about. It doesn’t take long for his suspicions to be further aroused. Much of the company’s work has always been in the field of public opinion polling but now the company is doing the polling on behalf of politicians. Eaton has no ethical qualms about using the various techniques of public relations to help sell laundry powders but he finds the idea of using these techniques to sell politicians very unsettling. He’s even more uneasy when he takes a look at some of the polls they’ve conducted. They’re clearly biased and full of loaded questions and various other dubious techniques. It seems his old company is in the business of trying to control public opinion rather than merely measuring it. That’s bad enough but it appears that McGinnis’s shady clients are not just unscrupulous politicians but paid foreign agents. McGinnis is in the business of political propaganda. He’s also linked to organisations, like Dr Jessup’s phony peace group, that are fronts for subversion. There is more than one kind of brainwashing.

It also becomes obvious that taking an excessive interest in McGinnis’s activities can be a dangerous undertaking and not only is Eaton’s life is in danger, he has also unwittingly endangered the life of McGinnis’s secretary Lorraine Dennis (Marilee Earle) who has been helping him in his unofficial investigating.

Tourneur was a director who always managed to be stylish without being obtrusive. He used cinematic tricks sparingly but effectively, the objective being to enhance the story rather than distracting from it. There’s a scene in this film where Alan Eaton is talking on the telephone in his office and Tourneur unexpectedly employs a high-angle shot. It’s not showy but it does rather nicely emphasise that Eaton is in danger of being isolated and marginalised. 

Dana Andrews is a terribly underrated actor. His approach was always low-key and you find yourself so convinced by his characterisations that you don’t notice his acting. And that of course is the whole point of acting. He gives a typically fine performance here. The supporting cast is adequate with Dick Foran as McGinnis making an amusing if not very subtle bad guy.

The Fearmakers is often dismissed a red scare movie which is a complete misunderstanding of the film. In fact it’s nothing of the kind. Some of the bad guys may be foreign agents but others are just common-and-garden crooked politicians. This movie is concerned with the broader issues of manipulation and the ethics of political lobbying in general. Everyone would like to get their point-of-view across to the public. Everyone would like to persuade other people of the quality of their product or the rightness of their opinions. At what point do these things cross the line and become outright propaganda and cynical manipulation? In the 1950s people still had the quaint idea that politicians should serve the public rather than exploit and manipulate them. The movie tackles these issues pretty well. The idea of public opinion polls being used to control public opinion makes a pleasingly original and interesting central premise.

MGM’s made-on-demand DVD offers a good open matte transfer with no extras.

Tourneur’s skill as a director combined with Dana Andrews’ subtle and complex performance are major assets. It’s an offbeat and slightly cerebral thriller with some nods to film noir. It’s original, provocative and entertaining. Highly recommended.

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