Psychotronic Ketchup: The Fearmakers (1958)

The Fearmakers
Director: Jacques Tourneur // 1958 [TCM]

Cinema 4 Rating: 5


"There are millions of people being lied to, taken for suckers! You know, it's a funny thing... they have pure food and drug laws to keep people from buying poison to put in their stomachs. And you're peddling poison to put in their minds!"
- Alan Eaton (Dana Andrews)


Oh, how I wanted to make this one of my entries for my
Slipped Discs column! I have always just missed watching The Fearmakers through the years, Knowing it was made not long after one of my favorite horror movies, Curse [Night] of the Demon, by that movie's same combination of director and star nonetheless, I was hoping that when I dove into it over the weekend (I recorded it off TCM on a day devoted to Dana Andrews), I would be looking at a lost classic. I would, at least, get a look at a Tourneur film I had not seen, and my hopes were, as usual after years of personal neglect, high for it. And for a stunning first few minutes, where the credits flash by rudely while Andrews is beaten to a bloody pulp as the Chinese attempt to brainwash him in a Korean prison camp, there was an earnestness and savage energy upon the screen, and it seemed as if I had indeed found a lost classic.

But, as with box office receipts, one cannot judge on a movie's opening alone. With Tourneaur's name bringing up the rear, there is a wipe that renders the screen black, and we find Andrews on a plane heading back to his home in Washington. What he is leaving behind in the east, apparently, is the slightest notion of dramatic plausibility, which is not really a necessity in a noirish thriller, but which would help bring things down a little bit when the lead character is speechifyin' at the drop of a hat about fifth columnists and fellow travelers. Andrews plays the former head of a public relations firm, who, after the aforementioned torture, returns to find his agency has been stolen mysteriously out from under him, via a very fishy, fatal "car accident" involving his former partner, and a signing over of the company assets has occurred, none of which he has been informed about until his return.


The agency is now run by Dick Foran, playing the most suspicious head of anything in the history of mankind. There might as well be punctuating organ blasts with each lie he spits back at Andrews' accusations, and since the devious Foran should also be shown wrapped in a flag bearing a hammer and sickle, he hires Andrews back, chiefly so he can get a crack at a senatorial friend of Andrews' who left the agency under the new regime. The senator gets Andrews to check deeper into the files at the agency, helped by a frying-pan-faced but voluptuous secretary played by Marilee Earle, where Andrews gets confirmation that the firm is backing up a series of false front groups. The film is shot so aridly and placid in most scenes, that when it gets to the big moments, such as one of the awesomely campy speeches to which Andrews is prone (and built for, with his self-righteous air) to deliver, it seems as if someone has switched on a light signaling the end of a mere dress rehearsal and the start of the real filming:


"Yes, I can see alright! I can see what you and your phony front groups are manufacturing. You're manufacturing FEAR, in order to sell your "Peace at Any Price" campaign! And it's not going to be very difficult for the senator to find out just WHO is paying the bills! I'm beginning to see how big the puppet is growing, and who is pulling the strings!"

These immensely pulp-ridden scenes, when coupled with Andrews' richly hammy habit of clutching his face every time he gets one of his brainwashing flashbacks, are just simply too much for the rest of the movie to play catch-up. Mel Torme, in a surprising supporting role as Foran's weaselly underling, is merely OK and even out of his league in a movie where one doesn't have to try all that hard to seem a decent actor. Perhaps intentionally, Foran lacks any sense of subtlety that might help us suspend our disbelief for even a second, and Miss Earle, whose head looks like Ann Miller swallowed two of her chorus girls, is quite possibly the blandest actress to ever grace a B-picture. Yet, she does say the key line that helps us realize in a modern sense that, despite how disappointing the film is overall,
The Fearmakers might still be a movie that sports major relevance to today's world.

In response to one of Andrews' suppositions, Earle asks,
"But, doesn't that give a few people a frightening amount of power?" While this movie spouts off, in the predictable way that filmmakers often had to in that McCarthy-stricken era, about commies and pinkos and everything scary and Red, the chief antagonists, led by Foran's McGinnis, are all recognizable carriers of a disease, while anyone in the world may partake of it, at which Americans, especially politicians, excel: greed. Not exactly the modus operandi of a socialist seeking to subvert citizens to their side; certainly the toxic by-product, though not exclusively, of capitalism. Here, in The Fearmakers, they have taken a stock character -- the greedy, power-hungry industrialist, politician, scientist, cop, businessman -- which could be used in any potboiler situation, tacked the word "communist" onto him without changing his actions in the least, and thrust it out to the audience in the hopes that a) the audience would be too dulled by the repetitions of common movies to even care they were being fed a bunch of pabulum yet again; or b) the real audience they were trying to reach would realize that the film is nothing but a lark, a cheesy con job shat out to appease a con job government breathing down Hollywood's neck.

It could likely be neither, but however they achieved the final product, it plays today for a reason quite apparent in Earle's line above.
I will refrain, though you might expect me to, to take another crack at the now-crumbling Bush
coup d'état. Earle's line certainly could describe the Trinity of Terror in the White House, especially when coupled with the concept of spreading massive fear to attain "peace at any price." But the film itself, far ahead of it's time and almost definitely completely by accident, is more accurately describing the general way in which business is done nowadays in the Age of Spin. There has been what we now popularly call "spin" since time began, but no time in history has ever been so consumed with the concept as right now. (My own company just recently hired a PR firm, and I would be highly disgusted by the notion if it didn't mean that I never have to crank out a soul-crushing, maudlin, block-of-falsehoods press release ever again.) It might have seemed novel in a B-thriller in 1958, but in 2007, every politician uses it, fake polls and leading questions are de rigueur, and if there is a politician that doesn't employ these methods, Republican or Democrat, then they are simply not going to get very far in today's system. Andrews points at the Lincoln Memorial at one point late in the film and muses: "You know, he was right. You can't fool all of the people all of the time, but nowadays, you don't have to fool ALL the people, just enough to swing it for the Fletchers and the Jessups."

I would suggest that perhaps the time is ripe for a remake of this film, but what would be the point? Everyone knows the game; know one wants to dare change it for being left out in the cold. The light has switched on, people, and dress rehearsal is over. This is the real world now. We might as well give in. No movie is going to save us from the truth we have to face: We are, all of us, bought and paid for, and most of what we do has been predetermined by the corporations we refuse to say "No" to...
Ow! Crap! I think I'm getting one of Andrews' headaches!

It looks like the brainwashing worked...

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