Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Fearmakers (Pacemaker/United Artists, 1958)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran the 1958 film The Fearmakers, a curious anti-Communist propaganda piece disguised as a film noir shown by TCM as part of a tribute to Jacques Tourneur (this month they’re saluting one or two famous directors every day), who made it for a company called “Pacemaker” releasing through United Artists. Written by Chris Appley and Elliot West from a novel by one Darwin L. Teilhet, The Fearmakers stars Dana Andrews as Alan Eaton, co-founder of the Eaton and Clark public-relations firm in Washington, D.C. until as an Army reservist he was re-activated to serve in Korea, captured, held in a Chinese POW camp for two years, repeatedly beaten and tortured and falsely reported as dead.

When he’s finally released he flies back to D.C. and expects to resume his old job as head of the agency — only he shows up to find that another man, Jim McGinnis (an almost unrecognizable — and surprisingly authoritative — Dick Foran), now owns the place, having bought out Clark the day before he was killed in an auto accident, run down by a hit-and-run driver. While on the plane to D.C. Eaton had run into Dr. Gregory Jessup (Oliver Blake), a nuclear physicist who tried to recruit him to a campaign to abolish nuclear weapons and also referred him to a boarding house in D.C. in case he needed a place to stay. The boarding house turns out to be owned by a couple, Harold “Hal” and Vivian “Viv” Loder (Kelly Thordsen and the marvelous Veda Ann Borg) — he’s a heavy-set blowhard who claims a World War II background and, of course, has none; she’s a middle-aged blonde who’s still trying to play the slut and getting her husband jealous over it — and all of these people, plus the agency’s chief statistician, Barney Bond (Mel Tormé — and would someone please tell me why so many Hollywood casting directors in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s thought Mel Tormé could act? He was one of the best, and most superbly musical, male jazz singers of all time, and he was also a talented composer and arranger of music, but he was a mediocre actor who seemingly couldn’t get a line out of his mouth without making it sound like a song cue), are part of a Communist plot (though interestingly the C-word is never used in the film) to use public relations to subvert the American people and get them to accept a “peace” plan that will bring about their unilateral disarmament and conquest by a sinister foreign power.

The Fearmakers was a somewhat interesting attempt to harness noir situations and imagery in the service of Right-wing propaganda, and Tourneur actually got a few atmospheric shots into it, but for the most part it’s just another movie, in which Our Hero, his secretary Lorraine Dennis (Marilee Earle) and Walder (Roy Gordon), a Senator who used to be a client of the agency but dropped it after Eaton left, get together and stop the sinister plot from going forward — though not before some interesting reversals and a plot device by which Eaton suffers incapacitating flashbacks to his days as a POW being beaten and tortured whenever he’s under stress — including one grim scene in which an ill-timed attack allows the villains to wrest away the gun he’d been holding on them. The Fearmakers is a damned sight better than The Red Menace, Big Jim McLain and most of the other better-known Red-baiting movies — not that that’s saying much for it — and at least there’s a talented director and star at the helm, though working well below both their potentials — and, though Foran and Borg are capable, the rest of the supporting cast is nothing to write home about either. What’s most interesting about it is that through much of the dialogue we hear much of the progressive critique of P.R. — that it’s being used to manipulate people without their knowing it and turn them into unthinking drones — albeit from people who are denouncing the Left for exploiting the P.R. industry in that way.