Tuesday, December 2, 2014

THE FEARMAKERS (1958)

I'm no film historian, but I'll go out on a limb and declare The Fearmakers the first movie to expose push-polling -- the "art" of asking a question a certain way in order to get the desired answer and, thus, steer the public to a certain way of thinking. Something like, "Do you think The Ol' Fish-Eye is one of the best blogs about obscure movies, family hijinx, and satire of current events that you've ever read?" 

Alan Eaton, an army vet released from an enemy detention camp during the Korean War, returns to the Washington PR firm he built with his business partner, who mysteriously died the day after selling out the company to Jim McGinnis. Eaton discovers that McGinnis has been working as a front for a shady organization intent on manipulating statistics in order to shape, rather than report, public opinion for their own nefarious reasons. The deeper Eaton digs for the truth, the more his life is in danger. He shoulda stayed in the POW camp.

Don't look now,  but the guy with the
notepad is redder than a blushing cardinal.
The Fearmakers never explicitly states that Communists are pulling the strings. But when one of McGinnis' clients is the Committee for the Abolition of Nuclear War, you know that there's a pinko in the woodpile -- lots of pinkos and they're everywhere: the flight Eaton takes to Washington, the boarding house where he stays, and, of course, at work.
Responding to a beating by one of McGinnis' stooges, Eaton mutters, "I've been worked over by professionals. They call it co-existence!" -- the dog whistle of Communism. As John McCain, another POW, would tell you, peace is the first sign of treason.


"How did I afford an Edsel? Oh, I forgot,
it was free!"
Despite looking like a cross between Moe and Shemp Howard, Dana Andrews is agreeably low-key as Alan Eaton, prone to violence only when provoked. You can tell he's a tough guy -- when offered bacon and eggs for breakfast, he replies, "I generally have a cigarette and coffee in the morning." (Just how many people hearing that would have thought, Me too?) If that's not 1950s enough, Eaton's secretary Mary drives a spanking new Edsel, a desperate product placement for a car nobody wanted.

"Forget about 'Blue Moon' -- I'm such
a Commie, I sing 'Red Moon'!"
While Dick Foran and Kelly Thordsen are pitch-perfect as McGinnis and his scummy henchman Hal Loder, The Fearmakers' real surprise is 33 year-old Mel Torme as Barney Bond, the eager beaver of the PR company. Squinting through Coke-bottle glasses, nervously wiping sweat from his face, trying without success to win the respect of McGinnis, Torme makes for an unexpectedly good character actor in the Byron Foulger mold -- a mousy creep with a nasty side. Probably the only thing preventing him from carving out a second career in movies was the response from the audience -- "Hey, that's Mel Torme! What's he doing there?" (His credit reads "Presenting Mel Torme" -- conveniently forgetting that this was roughly his 15th movie appearance since 1943.)

By never using the word "Communist," The Fearmakers ages much better than most other anti-Red melodramas of its time. You can pretend that Democrats or Republicans are the bad guys here, and it would play just as well -- better, in fact, because they're pulling this kind of thing all the time. The brainwashing Eaton endured by the Reds is no different than that being conducted in the name of polling. Only now they call it "information gathering." Sounds less red, and more red, white and blue.

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