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Yvonne De Carlo,
Historically important and a Tourneur film--two reasons to see it.
The Fearmakers (1958)
"The Fearmakers" has the makings of a classic but also the meat of an "important" movie in its themes, which are complex. As a kind of background is the fact that returning Korean War POW Dana Andrews had been brainwashed and abused by his captors and so had an unstable mind. This theme is handled in a whole slew of movies, including a finely tuned Richard Widmark film "Time Limit" (directed by Karl Malden of all people, in 1957) and of course the now legendary "Manchurian Candidate" (starring Frank Sinatra in 1962). And in this film we have the semi-auteur director Jacques Tourneur pulling it together.
But this is just the start. The larger plot has to do with the burgeoning lobbyist scene in Washington D.C. in the 1950s, and with the growing polling and public relations field with all the implications of social brainwashing. There are insertions of anti-nuclear pacifism and the connection of smoking and "malignancies." And above all there is a naive population implied at every turn. It's as if the movie is a wake up call to the audience, that your elected officials in Washington can't be blindly trusted, that pollsters are not always honest, that the world is an insidious and nasty place even though the Eisenhower 1950s might have you think otherwise.
This is a nice updating of the film noir type, a decade after the classic genre's real peak. Here the returning G.I. has to go alone against a society very different than those in noirs of 1948, and the soldier's Korean War experience was very different from the usual WWII backdrop of earlier films. He turns to a woman for help, and to a reporter, so at least those are clichés we don't mind revisiting, but there is no murder afoot, no detective gumshoeing around, and very little dark and brooding photography.
Why has this fallen so far under the radar? It not only gets a low composite rating on this site, but doesn't even have a Wikipedia entry. My guess is that the movie talks too much. The character Andrews plays is having to explain things in words, either persuading someone to help him or accusing someone he thinks is up to no good. For me this wasn't such a big deal. I didn't expect an action film, and I didn't even expect a riveting film noir. With Tourneur in charge, I just expected something interesting, and it is very very interesting. I think anyone trying to grasp the Korean War experience, or anyone who wants to understand (and not just love) film noir as a "cycle" of films, has to give this a shot.
And Dana Andrews is his usual first rate restrained lovable self, with a decent supporting cast and some very good writing to back him up. The photographer is Sam Leavitt, who did a number classic, visually arresting films from this period: "Man with the Golden Arm," "Defiant Ones," "Cape Fear," "Anatomy of a Murder," etc. You get the idea. And Tourneur might be turning to small production companies for work (this was a one-movie company called Pacemaker), but that doesn't mean the film looks or feels shoddy. Not a bit. It's just the state of the industry in the late 1950s, a low point in many ways. And here's one that slipped through the net.
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