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.
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.
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.
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.
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.