Not every great movie becomes a cultural touchstone. Some simply escape notice, some are obscured by time, and some are actively suppressed. In this column, Jared adopts a few orphaned films in need of a good viewing.
The Fearmakers is available on Netflix streaming!
During the Cold War, Americans were afraid that an outside force might surreptitiously influence national policy. The improbably well-traveled novelist Darwin Teilhet was ahead of the game in supposing that the Reds could easily take over, not by brainwashing, spying, or invading, but by using the red-blooded American tradition of manipulating public opinion surveys. The Fearmakers, the film based on his novel, takes great pains to vilify the broken polling agencies where votes are bought and sold, using the “Red Menace” as a boogeyman, just to get your attention.
Dana Andrews chain-smokes his way through the film as a recently released P.O.W. Andrews gives a characteristically stony performance here—as always, he plays against emotion, while projecting the strain behind his mask of stoicism. By the time The Fearmakers was made, a decade of alcoholism had eroded his Hollywood-approved good-looks, but his alarmingly haggard appearance adds a believable gravity to the role.
While imprisoned in North Korea, Andrews was subjected to their secret brainwashing techniques, which apparently consist of sitting the prisoner down in a chair and bitch-slapping them repeatedly for the hell of it. As a result, Andrews suffers from periodic headache spells.
When Andrews returns to Washington, D.C., he finds that his business partner has been killed, and the meticulously honest polling agency they founded has been sold to a great big asshole (Dick Foran). Foran allows wealthy politicians to purchase whatever poll results support their platform, and he does the same for wealthy organizations as well.
You see, the really cool thing about The Fearmakers, is that it was released amidst a sea of anti-commie propaganda movies, but its story actively dismisses the attention-grabbing concept of “brainwashing” as a paranoid fever-dream, choosing instead to expose an enemy within our imperfect nation. This is not The Manchurian Candidate. Yes, the communists ultimately turn out to be the ones rigging the polling system, but that system is of American design, and they hijacked it by taking advantage of a capitalist’s greed.
In addition to the war-torn Andrews and the oily Foran, it’s worthing mentioning a supporting turn by Mel “The Velvet Fog” Tormé, cast against-type as a spineless fidget in coke-bottle glasses, whose hopeless infatuation with The Only Woman in the Office (Marilee Earle) plays a harmonizing note of utter sadsack tragedy.
Also notable: legendary B-movie director Jacques Tourneur uses clean staging and heavy shadows to create an oppressively no-nonsense atmosphere.
But good direction and good acting can only enhance a mystery. It’s the writing that makes or breaks this particular genre, because it’s inherently dialogue-dependent. Mystery requires speech after speech of exposition, revelation, explanation, accusation, conviction, contrition. It’s perhaps the most difficult type of story to construct, and as such, it is The Fearmakers‘ weakpoint.
In the very first exposition scene, for example, Andrews is on a flight from San Francisco to D.C., and he becomes a captive audience—as do we—to a chatty nuclear physicist (George Jessup) who asks him a series of questions pertaining to the plot and his character backstory. (Don’t you hate it when that happens to you?) Eventually, Andrews grows tired of talking. He leans back to go to sleep and the scene ends. Fine. But then we fade to the next morning, and he’s still on the damned plane, and the damned scientist has more damned questions for him.
SCREENWRITING TIP #302: Don’t end the scene if you still have some scene left. If you have to split your expository dialogue into a Part I and a Part II, you’re frontloading with too much exposition.
This happens again, when Andrews luncheons with Senator Walder (Roy Gordon), the one man in Washington with a conscience. They discuss the seriousness of poll manipulation, and then they stand up and leave the table, effectively ending the scene. But then go-get-’em reporter Joel Marston arrives, and they sit back down again to discuss the mysteriousness of his partner’s “accident.”
In this protracted scene, we hear a few lines which I can only classify as beautifully insane. The best of them: “The puppet may look harmless, but how large will it grow? And who’s pulling the strings?”
There is also a call-back, later: “I’m beginning to see how big the puppet is growing. And who is pulling the strings.”
SCREENWRITING TIP #471: Make sure your analogies make some kind of sense. The string-pulling thing’s legit. That totally applies to puppets. But puppets do not grow. That characteristic is not attributable. If you were a puppeteer, and you showed me one of your puppets, and I said, “Wow, how big is it going to get?” you would immediately realize you were talking to an idiot.
The story also takes a few enjoyably bizarre detours, such as when Andrews checks into what might be the most uncomfortable bed-and-breakfast in cinema history. The Loders’ Georgetown B&B. Come for the rustic colonial charm; stay for the proprietors’ drunken domestic disputes.
Spotty screenwriting aside, The Fearmakers is a fascinating film, especially if you view it as a message movie. The message being, “opinion polls can be misleading.” Today, that’s common knowledge, but this 1958 film presents itself as exposé.
In the end, Andrews, and by proxy, America, wins. He punches Foran into submission on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and then makes out with The Only Woman in the Office under the Great Emancipator’s solemn gaze.
It’s a victory scene, no doubt about it. But the triumph rings hollow from a modern perspective. The take-away, for me, is that we were fools to ever put stock into an inherently corruptible system of data accrual, which, even if it works perfectly, only allows us to make the mistake of using the opinions of thousands of mostly uninformed strangers as a decision-making tool. In other words:
“Ignore opinion polls. Fearmakers out.”