Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Morning Departure (1950)

The 1950 British production Morning Departure (released in the US under the excruciating title Operation Disaster) is a  submarine movie but it’s not a war movie. It all takes place during peacetime but it is in my humble opinion the best submarine movie ever made.

The submarine HMS Trojan leaves port early in the morning to take part in a routine exercise. The crew know that they will be home in time for tea. Or at least that’s what they think. What they haven’t counted on is an old wartime mine. The mine explodes and the Trojan sinks in 90 feet of water.

Twelve men survive, trapped in the stricken submarine. There are ways of escaping from a submarine in such circumstances but this turns out to be not so easy as might have been hoped. The submarine has been located and a full-scale rescue operation is mounted. The prospects for the survivors are by no means hopeless, as long as the weather holds and as long as nothing goes wrong with the rescue operation. The weather however may not hold. This will be a race against time.

This is a very British movie. It’s certainly not an action movie. What it lacks in action it more than makes up for in suspense and human drama.

John Mills plays the Trojan’s captain, Lieutenant Commander Armstrong. John Mills seemed to pop up in most British submarine movies, possibly because he was simply so good at playing brave but sympathetic officers.

Richard Attenborough shares top billing, playing Stoker Snipe. Snipe is a submariner who suffers from claustrophobia. It’s the sort of part Attenborough was particularly good at - playing a man who must confront his fears. Nigel Patrick is the Trojan’s First Lieutenant, Lieutenant Manson, a man whose naval career once seemed very bright but has now turned to a kind of melancholy disappointment. James Hayter as Able Seaman Higgins provides some comic relief (which is luckily handled well and not overdone). Bernard Lee (another specialist in naval officer and similar roles) is Commander Gates, in charge of the rescue operation. Look out for Kenneth More in a small part.

While this is not a war movie it did require some moderately ambitious underwater sequences and while it’s not a lavish production it certainly never looks cheap.

While there’s plenty of suspense this is really a character-driven movie. The survivors discover things about themselves, both good and bad. Some react surprisingly well to the crisis while others find that the situation pushes them to the limits and possibly beyond. They are brave men but even the bravest of men can only stand so much.

The always reliable Roy Ward Baker does a fine job as director. The movie was based on a stage play and this combined with the confined setting could have resulted in an excessively talky and static film. It is of course intentionally and necessarily claustrophobic but it never becomes dull.

Shortly before the movie was released there was a real-life British submarine disaster, the loss of HMS Truculent. Consideration was given to withdrawing the movie but it was decided (rightly) to release it as a tribute to the submariners of the Royal Navy.

VCI’s Region 1 DVD offers a very pleasing transfer, with no extras. There is a Region 2 DVD, which I haven’t seen.

Morning Departure is typically low-key in a typically British sort of way. Men do heroic things but they don’t make a song and dance about it. They deal with a terrifying situation as best they can. They are frightened but they do their best to face their fears. Some succeed better than others. There are times when it looks like someone is going to let the side down. They are men, not machines. They struggle to overcome their fears but the actors don’t have to emote all over the decks to convey these inner struggles. Richard Attenborough gets a bit edgy, as he usually did, but he doesn’t overdo it. He knows how far to go. This is a well-made well-written film about men who may be facing death and it makes its points quietly and effectively. Highly recommended.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

55 Days at Peking (1963)

For a short period Samuel Bronston was the king of the epic movie. He built a formidable movie-making empire in Spain, only to see it all collapse within a few years. The problem was that Bronston had ambition and vision but his judgment was not always all that it might have been and his business methods were, to put it charitably, unconventional and insanely risky. He did however manage to produce one of the finest epics ever made, El Cid, in 1961. El Cid had a great story, an intelligent script, a charismatic star (Charlton Heston) and in the person of Anthony Mann a director who understood the epic genre. 55 Days at Peking, released two years later, has the same charismatic star but unfortunately it lacks the other qualities that made El Cid such a superb film. Having said that, it still offers considerable entertainment value.

The idea certainly had potential. In 1900 during the Boxer Rebellion the foreign legations of the great powers in Peking found themselves under siege with only a handful of soldiers  to defend them. The political background to these events is mind-numbingly complex and although the script tries to fill in enough of the backstory to make the tale comprehensible it’s likely that many viewers will still be rather perplexed.

Suffice to say that when it is clear there is going to be major trouble the leader of the British legation, Sir Arthur Robertson (David Niven), persuades the other foreign legations to stand firm and stay put. It’s a courageous decision although whether it’s wise or not may be debated. 

Major Matt Lewis (Charlton Heston) commands the US Marines defending the American legation. For the purposes of the movie Robertson and Lewis became the mainstays of the epic defence.

While trying to fight off massed attacks by Boxers Lewis also has some personal complications to deal with. He falls in love with the Russian Baroness Natalie Ivanoff (Ava Gardner), a woman of great beauty but with a dubious moral reputation. He also has to figure out what to do with Teresa (Lynne Sue Moon), an eleven-year-old half-Chinese girl who is the daughter of one of his Marines.

The love story between Lewis and the Baroness doesn’t really work. Ava Gardner was a talented actress but could be difficult to work with (to put it mildly) and she and Heston did not hit it off.  This may be the reason that the chemistry between them just isn’t there. It’s also fairly clear that while the writers wanted a romance they weren’t really clear how they wanted it to develop and they really had no idea what to do with Gardner’s character.

David Niven wasn’t thrilled by the script either but he does his best in a rather awkward role. Robertson has to be stubborn and stiff-necked, and also brave and noble, and also troubled by self-doubts. It’s to Niven’s credit that his understated and dignified performance works quite well.

The problem for Charlton Heston was, once again, the muddled script. Heston ends up having to rely entirely on charisma, which luckily he has in abundance.

The supporting players are in some ways more fortunate. Their roles being less central to the story meant that writers Philip Yordan and Bernard Gordon had fewer opportunities to mess things up for them. Harry Andrews, one of the great British character actors, has plenty of fun with his role as a resourceful priest. Australian Robert Helpmann always enjoyed himself playing perfidious or sinister characters and he makes Prince Yuan, the man pulling the strings of the Boxers, delightfully sly and malevolent. Flora Robson does fairly well as the dowager empress, a woman who knows her country is in crisis but who also knows that she has few good options.

Nicholas Ray was signed to direct but left the production under something of a cloud. Guy Green took over but soon followed Ray out the door, with Andrew Marton eventually finishing the picture. Given that this was a massive and unwieldy production to start with the constant turnover of directors obviously contributed to the film’s rather ramshackle structuring. Ray was an overrated director with no experience making this sort of picture and was possibly a poor choice in the first place. One can’t help thinking that if only Bronston had been able to persuade Anthony Mann to direct the results might have been much more satisfactory.

Despite these problems 55 Days at Peking does have some major strengths. Bronston built what was at the time the biggest standing set in cinematic history. The money spent on this project was astronomical and it has to be said that it was, from the point of view of spectacle, money well spent. The sets really are magnificent. The costumes are exquisite. Everything looks real because it was real. That was the Samuel Bronston way. He had no interest in trying to achieve spectacle by using matte paintings or miniatures. If he needed a whole city for a movie then he built the city. This approach paid off. Visually this movie is breath-taking.

And even with a creaky script there is still plenty of excitement.

There is no point in trying to impose modern values on a film like this. This is not a politically correct movie, but then history has an annoying habit of not always being politically correct. The characters behave in ways that were consistent with the moral values of their time. You can disagree with their actions but by their own lights they acted with courage and decency. And the movie was made the way movies were made in the early 60s. If you wanted someone to play a Chinese dowager empress you found someone who could handle the role. You didn’t worry about whether she was Chinese or not. That’s the way things were done in 1963.

Anchor Bay’s Region B Blu-Ray is superb. This is a movie that relies entirely on its visual impact and that absolutely has to be seen on Blu-Ray and on the biggest widescreen TV you can find. 

55 Days at Peking truly is the kind of movie they don’t make any more. It’s grandiose and it’s insanely extravagant and it celebrates old-fashioned heroism. With all its faults it’s thoroughly enjoyable. Recommended.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

One Hour with You (1932)

One Hour with You is the fourth of the Ernst Lubitsch musicals included in Criterion’s Eclipse series Lubitsch Musicals DVD boxed sets. I have to say that I’ve found this set to be a very mixed bag, but One Hour with You is not too bad.

Maurice Chevalier is Dr Andre Bertier, happily married to Colette (Jeanette MacDonald). Then Colette’s old friend Mitzi (Genevieve Tobin) arrives in town and sets out to seduce Andre. Andre is determined to resist her approaches, or at least he is for a while. Then he starts to weaken. Meanwhile Colette has convinced herself that he is really having an affair with Mademoiselle Martel (Josephine Dunn). To add to the fun and games Adolph (Charles Ruggles) is desperately pursuing Colette but with a conspicuous lack of success. The poor guy doesn’t realise he’s the comic relief character who never gets the girl.

Mitzi’s husband Professor Olivier (Roland Young) is fed up with Mitzi’s alley-cat morals and just want to get rid of her at any price (and I can’t say I blame him). He’s delighted by her pursuit of Andre because it finally gives him the chance to get the evidence he needs to divorce her.

There are the usual bedroom farce complications and misunderstandings interspersed with some fairly forgettable musical numbers.

Maurice Chevalier makes frequent asides directly to the audience, which I guess was fairly daring in 1932.

One Hour with You was actually supposed to be directed by George Cukor but Cukor proved to be so inept that Lubitsch had to take over. Cukor would go on to demonstrate his  leaden touch for comedy in disasters like Holiday (1938). We can be thankful that Lubitsch took over when he did.

Of the four movies in the Lubitsch Musicals boxed set I found The Love Parade to be an absolute delight while I found Monte Carlo and The Smiling Lieutenant to be quite a chore to sit through. The big problem is Maurice Chevalier. He thinks he’s charming and irresistible but to me he’s irritating, smarmy and obnoxious and the characters he plays are   unpleasant, cruel and manipulative. Maybe women in the 1930s liked him. Maybe women still do. Maybe he’s just the sort of man that other men instinctively detest. Or perhaps it’s just me.

I’m also not entirely sold on the famous Lubitsch Touch. I know we’re supposed to admire his “European sensibility” and his allegedly sophisticated approach to immorality. I have liked a few Lubitsch movies. Trouble in Paradise is great fun, as is Ninotchka, but I’m unconvinced that Lubitsch was a genius.

I’m also increasingly bored by the whole “isn’t adultery clever and fun” thing in pre-code movies. If that’s European sophistication then I’m afraid that to me it just looks rather sad, and rather nasty. And that’s one of the problems I have with these Lubitsch musicals - there’s an underlying viciousness to them.

One Hour with You does have its diverting moments and even Maurice Chevalier is amusing at times. Jeanette MacDonald is energetic even if her character is quite unbelievable. The idea of having some of the dialogue in rhyming couplets is quite clever. Genevieve Tobin is annoying as the awful Mitzi. Roland Young and Charles Ruggles are the standout performers with Young being especially good.

One Hour with You was the last of Lubitsch’s Paramount musicals. The Astaire-Rogers musicals and the Warner Brothers musicals such as 42nd Street were just around the corner and would soon make the Lubitsch musicals look like creaky museum pieces.

The DVD transfer is very grainy, which is the case with all four movies in this set. That doesn’t usually bother me too much - a bit of grain really doesn’t hurt a black-and-white image and can even be an asset. In this case though the picture is very grainy indeed. Those who like crystal clear images will be quite disappointed by the transfers in this set, especially considering the price. There are no extras on the discs although there are mildly informative liner notes. As is so often the case with Criterion you’re paying a premium price for strictly average quality, or in this case for distinctly below average quality. This set is very poor value for money.

One Hour with You is very lightweight and intermittently entertaining. Jeanette MacDonald fans will enjoy her spirited performance. Worth a rental if you can tolerate Maurice Chevalier. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Flying Scot (1957)

So why is it that criminals who think they are going to pull one big final job and spend the rest of their lives lying on a beach in Acapulco usually end up living out their lives in a prison cell? The answer of course is that the average criminal makes the mistake of thinking that a robbery will go off as smoothly in practice as they imagined it would when they devised their cunning plan. The awkward truth that nothing works in practice like it does in theory is blithely overlooked. The criminals in The Flying Scot are a perfect illustration.

This low-budget 1957 British movie, released in the US as The Mailbag Robbery, is typical of the unassuming but thoroughly entertaining crime thrillers that the British film industry turned out in huge numbers from the 40s up to the early 60s.

Ronnie (Lee Patterson), a brash and insanely over-confident American thief, has come up with a fool-proof plan for robbing a mail train. Every week the express train The Flying Scotsman transports half a million pounds in old bank notes to London. These are worn notes that are to be destroyed but as Ronnie points out to his accomplices, even if the notes are a little grubby they’re still perfectly valid until they get pulped in London. And Ronnie has discovered an almost unbelievable flaw in the railway’s security. If you manage to secure the right compartment in the right carriage you can simply remove the back of one of the seats and then all that stands between you and the luggage compartment containing the half million pounds is a thin wooden board held in places by a couple of screws.

Ronnie has figured it all out. All he needs to do is to pretend to be newly married and the conductor will be sure to let him have the compartment he wants, and will also be sure not to disturb the happy newly-weds. He’ll need a bride of course, but Jackie (Kay Callard) is quite prepared to play a bride for a share in half a million quid. Once they’re reached the loot all they will need to do is to throw the bags of cash out the window as they pass a particular bridge where another accomplice will be waiting to pick it up. They then leave the train in London and head straight for the airport to catch a plane to South America to enjoy their ill-gotten gains.

The fourth member of the gang is Phil (Alan Gifford), another American and a seasoned criminal whose experience will be essential to refine the plan.

Ronnie has rehearsed the plan numerous times and really there are no flaws in it at all. It’s almost too easy. That money is practically begging to be stolen and nothing can possibly go wrong.

In fact of course everything that could possibly go wrong does go wrong. The whole thing is a shambles from start to finish but the gang members are so determined that they press on regardless. That’s what makes the film so entertaining - it becomes an epic struggle against overwhelming odds and you can’t help feeling that such extraordinary persistence in the face of adversity will eventually be rewarded.

The story is quite good and director Compton Bennett handles matters with skill and precision. Norman Hudis was better known as a writer for comedy (including half a dozen Carry On movies) but his screenplay is admirably focused. The original story was co-written by Australia Ralph Smart who went on to a distinguished career in television as a writer-producer of such classic series as The Invisible Man and Danger Man.

Most of all though The Flying Scot has vitality and style. The lengthy dialogue-free opening sequence is particularly impressive and then you realise that what you just saw wasn’t what you thought you saw. It’s a display of the kind of confidence and boldness of technique that is always particularly pleasing in a low-budget movie.

There are no big names in the cast but the performances are all very effective with Lee Patterson as Ronnie and Alan Gifford as Phil being especially good. The strong supporting players add some nice extra touches of wit and irony as they unwittingly contribute to the gang’s already considerable woes as their plan starts to self-destruct in spectacular fashion.

The movie uses a great deal of stock footage for the scenes of trains rushing through the countryside but this footage is expertly integrated into the film which ends up looking rather more expensive than it was.

Network’s DVD is barebones as usual but the transfer is lovely and the very reasonable price makes this one a definite bargain.

The Flying Scot is low-budget movie-making at its best, witty and stylish and with a boundless energy that puts in a class above the average B-movie. Highly recommended.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Above Us the Waves (1955)

Above Us the Waves was made in 1955 and it’s typical of the British war movies of its era - young men doing terribly brave things in a very understated sort of way.

The movie is based on a real-life 1943 naval operation in which British midget submarines tried to sink the German battleship Tirpitz, hiding out in a Norwegian fjord. Access to the fjord seemed just about impossible and the battleship was protected by formidable anti-aircraft defences so any conventional attack would have been difficult.

In the movie version Commander Fraser (John Mills) comes up with the daring plan but his superior Admiral Ryder (James Robertson Justice) thinks it’s a lot of nonsense. Fraser decides there’s only one way to convince the admiral - he carries out a daring raid on the admiral’s own flagship, having his men place dummy charges on the hull of the British battleship. It certainly gets the admiral’s attention and Fraser gets the go-ahead.

The first attempt against the Tirpitz ends in dismal failure when the two-man human torpedoes sink before getting anywhere near the target. The failure does offer the movie the chance to add a fairly exciting sequence as the men have to escape across the mountains into neutral Sweden.

This failure convinces Fraser that the human torpedoes are unworkable but now he has a much better plan - they will attack the Tirpitz with four-man “X-craft” midget submarines. The three X-craft (including X-1 commanded by Fraser himself) will be towed across the North Sea by ordinary submarines and will then have to work their way through the numerous obstacles to reach the German battleship and place their charges. There’s plenty of suspense as lots of things go wrong but Fraser and his men are determined to press their attack.

The miniatures work is quite good and the action sequences, while not offering the kind of adrenalin-charged excitement that would become standard in 1960s movies in this genre, are fairly convincing.

It seemed to be a rule that if you were going to make a British submarine adventure film at that time you had to have John Mills as the star. Which is no problem because he was exceptionally good at these types of roles. He was a long way from being what modern audiences would think of as an action hero but he managed to convey quiet determination and understated courage extremely well and makes a convincing leader of the type who leads by example and by understanding the frailties of human nature.

There’s a fine supporting cast of the kinds of reliable British character actors who abounded in those days. Donald Sinden and John Gregson play the commanders of X-2 and X-3. James Robertson Justice of course has no difficulty whatsoever playing the crusty but sympathetic Admiral Ryder.

One nice feature is the avoidance of the usual evil Nazi stereotypes. The captain of the Tirpitz, played by O. E. Hasse, is a decent man who regards his British adversaries as brave men who are doing their duty.

The DVD from ITV Studios Home Entertainment is barebones but offers a good transfer. And it’s ridiculously cheap!

Above Us the Waves has plucky British lads doing things that are not only terribly dangerous but terribly top-secret and hush-hush as well. The whole concept is the sort of hare-brained scheme that appealed to the British, and sometimes even worked.

If you enjoy the low-key style of British war movies of the 50s and 50s then you’re practically certain to enjoy this one. Highly recommended.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

White Woman (1933)

The pre-code era gave birth to a whole sub-genre of outrageous lust in the jungle melodramas in tropical settings. Kongo (1932) may have been the most outrageous of them all but when it comes to pure unadulterated sleaze Paramount’s 1933 offering White Woman is hard to beat.

Carole Lombard is Judith Denning, an American widow eking out a living as a singer in a native bar in Malaya. Or at least that’s what she was doing until it was made clear to her that she was no longer welcome anywhere in the colony. Judith’s husband had shot himself and although she was not charged it’s obvious that there was a strong suspicion that her adultery had driven him to suicide and that she might even have been guilty of more than adultery. That was enough to make her persona non grata but singing in a native bar was the icing on the cake. There really isn’t anywhere for Judith to go since the scandal of her husband’s suicide is going to follow her so when Horace H. Prin (Charles Laughton) asks her to marry him she accepts.

Cockney Prin is a wealthy trader and planter known as the King of the River. He’s debauched and middle-aged and Judith is obviously repelled by him but at the time it seems like the best offer she’s likely to get. So she marries him and they set off for his home in the jungle, a large river steamer decorated in the kind of expensive bad taste you’d expect from a man who started life in the gutter. Spiritually Prin has never left the gutter. He is a bizarre specimen of humanity gone very wrong and he rules his petty kingdom like an oriental despot.

Whether the suspicions attached to Judith’s past life are justified or not it’s obvious that she does not take her marriage vows the slightest bit seriously. Pretty soon she is canoodling with Prin’s overseer David von Elst (Kent Taylor). This simply amuses Prin. He knows he holds all the cards. All the men who work for him have one thing in common - they have no choice. They all have some dirty secret in their past, a dirty secret that Prin knows about and uses gleefully and with sadistic relish. In von Elst’s case it’s cowardice - he deserted from his regiment some years earlier in shameful circumstances. Prin is if anything quite pleased that Judith and von Elst have fallen for each other. If offers him the opportunity for some sadistic entertainment.

The first sign of real trouble comes with the arrival of a new overseer, Ballister (Charles Bickford). Ballister is not afraid of Prin, in fact he’s openly contemptuous. For Prin this offers a new and even more amusing challenge but perhaps this time he has found someone who will call his bluff.

The real trouble starts when two native chiefs arrive to complain about Prin’s shoddy trade goods. Prin insults them in a manner that is outrageous even by his standards. Pretty soon the jungle drums are beating and rebellion is in the air. Prin still believes he is in control, and so he is, for a while. But events are spiralling out of control.

The jungle settings are superbly realised. This movie looks quite lavish in a decadent degenerate sort of way.

Charles Laughton’s performance is deliriously over-the-top even by Laughton standards. When this is combined with one of the most ludicrous moustaches in film history and some  outlandish costumes the results could easily have been mere high camp silliness but Laughton adds a very real sense of viciousness to his characterisation. Prin is a ridiculous figure, but a very dangerous one as well, and his insane over-confidence makes the situation truly explosive.

Charles Bickford shows he can match Laughton when it comes to over-acting. The exchanges between Laughton and Bickford are the movie’s greatest strength - these two actors bounce off one another with magnificent zest.

With Laughton and Bickford in full flight Carole Lombard is inevitably overshadowed. Her performance is good but she’s simply outgunned. Surprisingly, given that Lombard was on the verge of becoming the queen of screwball comedy, she doesn’t try to counter Laughton with wisecracks. It’s obvious that at this stage of her career no-one had yet recognised her supreme comedic talent, which is a pity since a few wisecracks delivered in inimitable Lombard fashion would have enlivened her performance.

Kent Taylor is even more completely overshadowed although he’s competent enough.

The Universal Vault Series made-on-demand DVD is barebones but it offers an extremely good transfer. 

This is real pre-code territory and there’s plentiful sexual innuendo and a general atmosphere of sleaze and depravity that is still quite startling. White Woman positively wallows in sleaze. With Laughton giving one of the most delightfully excessive performances of a delightfully excessive career and Bickford equally over-the-top the result is a deliciously overheated melodrama. Highly recommended.

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.