October 7, 2009

THE FEARMAKERS (1958)



Dana Andrews is one of the more iconic actors of the film noir cycle, yet in the grand scheme of things he’s one of the most underappreciated in film history. The image of him standing amidst the hulking carcasses of bombers at the end of The Best Years of Our Lives is so viscerally powerful that the thought of it can bring tears to my eyes. I’ve always admired him as a “film first” kind of guy, meaning that he never allowed his ego to get in the way of his characters. “Low key” for him wasn’t a vapid Hollywood actor’s false modesty; it was his personal way of exploring character and demonstrating faith in his audience’s ability to empathize. He was a fairly regular Joe who suffered through the ups and downs of life as most people do, though it can be argued that he had more than his share of bad luck. That he struggled mightily with alcohol in the years after his career began to decline isn’t surprising — less was known of alcoholism in those days when the evening cocktail was much a part of American culture. It didn’t help that in 1935 he buried a young wife, followed in 1964 by their child. He worked as he found it in his later years, and died without fanfare in the early nineties. His body of work is extraordinary, and it’s easy to imagine that his screen persona was probably not much different than the man in real life.


Oddly, one of the roles for which I best remember him is as Ted Stryker from 1957’s
Zero Hour!. In the film, famously lampooned in Airplane!, Andrews plays a neurotic WWII fighter pilot who can’t overcome the guilt he feels over the deaths of a number of his squadron members. He gets his shot at redemption years later as a passenger in a commercial flight that is overcome by food poisoning. (“Don’t order the fish!”) The film depicts Andrews as a shaky, sweat-drenched nervous wreck — a coward even. By the end he’s a hero — though an incredibly reluctant one. You leave thinking that had anyone else been able to fly the plane, Andrews would have kept his ass strapped in row F. Even as the flight crew asks if anyone on board has flight experience, he keeps quiet. It isn’t until his ailing son volunteers that his “pop flew in the war” that Andrews grudgingly owns up to it. The guy in the control tower who talks him down is Sterling Hayden of all people; and the big man browbeats Andrews through his ordeal until the plane flops onto the tarmac. Even then, Stryker never gets that moment of movie triumph that eighties actions films led us to expect. Instead of a rousing ovation everyone seems joyously relieved that a schmuck like Stryker didn’t get them all killed. The film’s treatment of Stryker is pretty tepid, yet Andrews bangs out the role and brings to it the same level of professionalism evident in all his other parts.

Shortly after
Zero Hour! Andrews and director Jacques Tourneur made two films together, The Night (Curse) of the Demon — which everyone and his ma has seen — and the obscure The Fearmakers. The Fearmakers is a communist exposé picture situated in the world of DC lobbyists and public relations firms. Andrews plays Alan Eaton, just released from a North Korean prison camp, where he was relentlessly beaten and tortured. The opening credits roll against one of his beatings, and the film’s first scene takes place on Eaton’s flight back to the States. It’s on this flight that he meets a “fellow traveler,” nuclear physicist Dr. Gregory Jessup. Jessup preaches nuclear disarmament, and warns Eaton that PR companies have begun to manipulate public opinion just as often as they reflect it. He just so happens to be looking for a good PR man, and asks Eaton for his contact information.

Let’s stop here for a second. The message of this scene is that Jessup is a communist — the fact that he’s stumping for nuclear disarmament is a dead giveaway. This notion has confused some who have commented on this film in recent years, as if the filmmakers are suggesting that anyone with a “no-nukes” bumper sticker must be a Red. It appears to go unnoticed that Jessup’s communism doesn’t actually make him a peace-lover — it just makes him a liar. The film’s attitude however, when viewed through the lens of the late fifties, makes a great deal more common sense. Remember that the nuclear arms race and nuclear stockpiling hadn’t yet begun in earnest, and that consequently American views about the defense program were decidedly pro-nuke, and a bit less fatalistic. After all, this was the atomic age — in the minds of most folks the Fat Man and Little Boy detonations had saved the lives of thousands and thousands of US servicemen. People were fairly jazzed about the idea of nuclear power, they saw it as a good thing. In the same year
The Fearmakers was in theaters, the Ford Motor Company was fervently developing a nuclear-powered concept car, complete with onboard reactor. The excess of the buildup was still in the offing, and the “bomb” remained an essentially American concept — When The Fearmakers debuted the Soviets had the bomb for only eight years and lagged behind in the associated technology. Even by 1964, the US held in reserve 7,000 warheads to only 500 for the Soviets. The truly frightening concept of remote delivery hadn’t yet taken hold either, though in October of ‘57 the Russians would deploy Sputnik via the first functional ICBM, changing attitudes forever. With all of this in mind, Jessup’s pitch to Eaton is a logical ploy: let’s get a respected American PR man to sway public opinion in the direction of disarmament, while in the meantime we secretly catch up to them in the arms race. Of course communists would want to sow the seeds of disarmament in America — and Andrew’s Eaton is perfect for the job: he’s naïve, rattled, and has possibly even programmed to be sympathetic by his North Korean / Chinese captors.

It would also appear to be a plot contrivance of the first order that Jessup would happen to be on the same plane as Eaton in the first place, but we later learn he’s a plant. As it turns out, Eaton’s former business partner died under mysterious circumstances just after exercising his power of attorney and selling the their PR firm to a third man, Jim McGinnis (Dick Foran). McGinnis is an unscrupulous fellow whose primary concern is greed. He’s in it for the money and doesn’t care much who he works for or what information he applies spin to. The film’s depictions of the PR racket falls well short of its clever take on Connecticut and K attitudes. (Take my word for it, I paid my dues there. The only thing I remember fondly is the “L Street Chicken” sandwich at Jonathan’s Gourmet Deli.) Despite the fact that Eaton & Baker is one of the most respected agencies inside the Beltway (McGinnis kept the firm’s name for, ironically, its PR value), nobody seems to actually work there. McGinnis’ only employees are right hand man Barney Bond (played like a weasel in coke bottle glasses by Mel Tormé) and secretary Ms. Dennis (Marilee Earle). This probably owes more than anything to the movie’s B status, but it lands much of the dramatic weight of the film onto the shoulders of Tormé and Earle, neither of whom was able to handle it. Earle is an especially weak performer, and her bizarrely fleshy face doesn’t help.

Eaton of course knows none of this — he expects to return to the company that he built from the ground up and resume his old life. Instead he gets hit by a ton of bricks: not only is his former partner long dead and gone, despite seeing his name is still on the door he no longer owns the business. McGinnis recognizes that Eaton still has some juice, so he offers him the chance to “write his own ticket” if only he can secure the account of a crusty senator whose business was lost when McGinnis took over the shop. Eaton agrees, but when he meets with the senator and a reporter friend, they clue him in as to whom McGinnis really fronts for. Horrified, Eaton becomes a sort of double agent and conspires to bring McGinnis down. Why? Because his name is still on the door and that makes him responsible for whatever the company has become in his absence. And although Eaton has endured hell in Korea, he’s still compelled somehow to do the right thing. He’s not devoid of cynicism though; after he gets clear he’s getting out of the PR rat race and heading for an easier life in California. Eaton has no desire to return his company to its former level of respectability — he knows a lost cause when he sees it.
The Fearmakers wraps up with a series of conventional movie run-ins with colorful communist agents in various guises, and all’s well that ends well. The end titles find Eaton and Ms. Dennis necking at the foot of Abraham Lincoln.

As much as
The Fearmakers can be applauded for being conceptually ahead of its time, its downfall lies in its failure to fully understand the crime it presents — or if it does understand the crime, to cinematically exploit it. The movie is about a corruption of the truth, one that continues to be perpetrated against the public more perversely and pervasively than even The Fearmakers could prophesize. This concept of corrupt but nonviolent crime must have been deemed too obtuse for a movie to communicate to audiences using fifties convention, because in the end the filmmakers reduce the crooks to mere thugs with fists and guns, showing us that the Hollywood didn’t yet understand that violence doesn’t always lie at the heart of all crime. Though, more importantly, it might just be true that we all still wanted to live in a make-believe world where a lone good man could trumpet down the walls of Jericho.


The Fearmakers (1958)
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Director: Jacques Tourneur
Cinematographer: Sam Leavitt
Screenplay: Chris Appley and Elliot West, based on the novel by Darwin Teilhet.
Starring: Dana Andrews, Dick Foran, Mel Tormé.
Released by: United Artists
Running time: 85 minutes

3 comments:

  1. A terrific post. I agree with your observations on Dana Andrews, who can be so real and so moving. I've not seen "The Fearmakers" but your insightful analysis of the film makes me want to see it very soon. A good point about the public's mindset about nuclear proliferation in the 1950s versus what it became in later decades.

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  2. I like your post, particularly your opening tribute to Dana Andrews, always a favorite of mine. Am unfamiliar with this film but enjoyed your disection of it.

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  3. So, people were as rediclously black and white in their thinking then as they are now? Ah.

    That was such a good explanation. It is odd how many 1950s movies make communists seem like the good ones if you do not realize the situation as you have described it. I get it now.

    Was the movie just propoaganda or does it reflect the feeling of average people of the time?
    1958 is still ripe for making movies out of fear, I guess.
    Andrews did a lot to show he was not a Commie after his movies got in trouble with effiing HUAC.


    I saw this movie a while ago. The only thing I really remembered on my own is that Andrews was great in it. I want to see it again now because I did not remember the secretary that way, but I trust your description and now I want to see her oddly fleshy face.


    addie B)

    addie B)

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