The Fearmakers (1958)


Fake news is one of those buzzwords for our modern times.  Both ends of the political spectrum use it both when there is actual fake news and when one side wants to discredit the other without going through the lengthy process of providing facts to back up their claims.  Opinion polls with loaded questions are used to not gauge public opinion but rather to guide those polled into responding a certain way so that agendas can be pushed. 

And, as usual, we are most afraid of what those dirty Russians might be up to, possibly manipulating everything from behind the scenes.

It's something that is a reflection of our internet age.  The previous generation wrings its hand and dreams of the good old days when news was news and everyone gave everything to us straight.  If it wasn't for those evil computers and the armies of hackers that are trying to control every aspect of our life, things would go back to the way they were, and everyone would be happy again.

Hate to tell you, but these fears have been around since the Baby Boomers were kids, and though the internet was barely even a future dream at the time, the fear that nefarious forces may be manipulating the American public to support causes that would be detrimental to the health of the country was quite palpable, as made clear in The Fearmakers.

Alan Eaton (Dana Andrews) is a partner in a major Washington, D.C. public relations firm, and he takes his job and responsibilities quite seriously.  After leaving his partner in charge while he fights in Korea, he returns a number of years after the war, having been held prisoner by the Chinese.  Fighting PTSD and trying to readjust to civilian life, he decides to visit his old firm before taking an extended vacation.

Only his partner died right after signing over control of the firm to Jim McGinnis (Dick Foran), an employee who had barely started when Eaton went into the service.  Both his secretary Lorraine Dennis (Marilee Earle) and assistant Barney Bond (Mel Tormé) act about as suspiciously as McGinnis does.  Eaton is offered a position back at the firm, one he is reluctant to take until he discusses the situation with an old client, Senator Walder (Roy Gordon), who suspects McGinnis may be in bed with lobbyists who are paying him to influence upcoming elections in their favor.

Eaton soon discovers that all is not right at the firm, and that his partner's death is quite suspicious in itself.  Without knowing who he can trust he decides to find out the truth behind everything McGinnis has been up to.

I was really expecting the usual Cold War, anti-communist flag waving, and there is definitely some of this, although much more subtle.  The movie doesn't target communists specifically, but does harp on the fact that "other actors" may be trying to weaken America through peace movements and other dangerous subterfuge.  Unfortunately, while other similar movies (such as The Manchurian Candidate) know to embed the message of political saboteurs under a thick veneer of action, The Fearmakers spends way too much time lecturing the audience.  Dana Andrews goes on like he is starring in an educational short rather than a film noir.

As for the latter elements, they are predictable from start to finish.  No twists, no surprises, and little excitement to boot.  It's largely Eaton proselytizes on how sacrosanct his position is, gets grumpy with McGinnis, tries to weedle info from Lorraine and faints with a headache whenever the plot requires.  Rinse and repeat until we have a major D.C. monument rear projected as the music rises and we feel all gooey and patriotic at the end.

What is really disappointing is that this preachy, by-the-book film was made by Jacques Tourneur, who was responsible for Curse of the Demon and directed Val Lewton's Cat People.  He's a director that genre aficionados expect great things from, even when given routine plots, and there is little to none of his signature style in this film.  This could have been directed by almost anyone.  It is so stiff and adherent to the Hays Code that it feels like something that is 10 years older than it actually is.

This is one of those situations that unless you really are a major fan of Dana Andrews or Jacques Tourneur, or a quirky judge that is completely obsessed with Mel Tormé, there is really no reason to slog through this unless forced to by a political science teacher.  Yes, it does show how, though circumstances have changed in 60 years that many things remain the same, but it doesn't do a good job.  So, this movie exists, and it may prove a point, but that's really as far as anyone needs to go with it in any regard.

The Fearmakers (1958)
Time: 85 minutes
Starring: Dana Andrews, Dick Foran, Marilee Earle
Director: Jacques Tourneur

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