Review: ‘The Fearmakers’ (1958) | Pop Culture Crossing

            The Fearmakers is a 1958 film noir thriller that is directed by Jacques Tourneur and is based on Darwin Teilhet’s 1945 novel. An intriguing story, a thrilling, mysterious atmosphere, great acting, and an excellent message are among this film’s hallmarks. If you are looking for a classic conspiracy-based thriller, you will not want to miss this underrated movie.

            The film’s story focuses on Alan Eaton, a former prisoner of war and Korean War veteran who has been released and brought back to the United States. Prior to his military service, Eaton was a named member of the public opinion firm Eaton, Baker Associates. However, significant changes have taken place during Eaton’s tenure as a prisoner. Namely, his business partner, Clark Baker, has died in a mysterious hit-and-run, and Jim McGinnis, a former low-level employee, has assumed control over the firm.

Image Courtesy of United Artists

Image Courtesy of United Artists

            Fortunately, Eaton is friends with Senator Walder, who is heading a Senate committee aimed at uncovering and taking action against conspirators who have infiltrated the public opinion field. Walder states that such seditious individuals are attempting to manipulate public opinion data in order to further political agendas. Due to McGinnis’ offer of bringing Eaton on as an advisor, Senator Walder asks for Eaton’s help in identifying such dissident activity at Eaton, Baker Associates.

            The Fearmakers’ pacing is in line with similar film noir and thriller movies in that it is slower and not an action-packed film. Yet that is not to say that the hooks of mystery and the film’s conspiracy do not present themselves until the final portions of the film. Rather, the seeds of unscrupulous behavior are sowed well within the first act. This grabs the audience’s attention and keeps them invested throughout the entirely of the film.

Image Courtesy of United Artists

Image Courtesy of United Artists

            The movie has thrilling, mysterious, and film noir flourishes that reflect its tone. Film noir elements often contend with crime in terms of organized crime and private investigators. However, the criminal component in The Fearmakers pertains to a different type of crime, conspiracy. This helps the film simultaneously feel grounded, distinctive, and intriguing.

Image Courtesy of United Artists

Image Courtesy of United Artists

            The movie also addresses doing what is right, no matter the personal cost, which is a positive tonal attribute, indeed. Both Eaton and Senator Walder have strong dialogue in which they explain various situations, be it the correct methodology for conducting public opinion research, or the nefarious activity of those exploiting the public for specific political ends. All in all, the writing is quite memorable and resonant. Viewers may think some elements are inconsequential, but everything is intentional and it is nice to watch the pieces come together. This is a true testament of Elliot West and Chris Appley’s superbly crafted screenplay of Darwin Teilhet’s original source material.

            Dana Andrews’ performance as Alan Eaton is enjoyable to watch. Eaton’s devotion to ethics and combating corruption is commendable and believable given Andrews’ portrayal of the character. Viewers also have sympathy for Eaton as he is currently dealing with “war souvenirs,” or post-traumatic stress from his imprisonment and torture in China. The way in which some characters threaten to leverage this as a means of discrediting Eaton compounds the tension and adds a slight sinking feeling.

Image Courtesy of United Artists

Image Courtesy of United Artists

            Andrews’ Eaton is Dick Foran’s Jim McGinnis, who is also well acted. Foran’s performance of the shady and execrable McGinnis as well as his treatment of Eaton is sound. The supporting cast of Marilee Earle, Mel Tormé, and Roy Gordon, among others, effectively round of the supporting cast.

Image Courtesy of United Artists

Image Courtesy of United Artists

            Earle does a great job at illustrating Lorraine Dennis’ dilemma regarding the suspicious activity within firm. She and Andrews have great on screen chemistry, too. Tormé seamlessly captures the aura of a bookish statistician, down to the very (though perhaps excessive) idiosyncrasies. Gordon’s Senator Walder is also a great supporting stalwart. As mentioned above, Eaton and Walder both deliver wise, cutting monologues and lines of dialogue. When paired with the strong performances, this element is especially extraordinary.

Image Courtesy of United Artists

Image Courtesy of United Artists

            Sam Leavitt’s cinematography is great to watch. There is one scene where Eaton is seen, in a medium shot, in front of the United States Capitol. Unfortunately, the distance and angle of Eaton and the building are not exactly what they would be given the preceding and subsequent long shots. The way these shots were edited makes the differences of the angles noticeable and odd. That is a minor complaint, however, as the majority of the film’s cinematography, lighting, and editing are great.

Image Courtesy of United Artists

Image Courtesy of United Artists

            One scene depicts Eaton sleeping. The way in which the camera starts on the window, replete with a gobo lighting effect, and then moves to show Eaton. The photography here certainly confirms the film’s noir nature. Other shots utilize noir-styled shadows, hard lighting, and eye lighting.[1]

Image Courtesy of United Artists

Image Courtesy of United Artists

            The sequence showing the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument reminded me of the Mount Rushmore sequence in North by Northwest, which, interestingly, was released the year after The Fearmakers. It would be fascinating to know if The Fearmakers influenced Hitchcock in that manner.

            The film’s production design is skillfully done. The airplane model in the first act looks great and holds up well today. The exterior façade of Eaton, Baker Associates is creatively constructed and enhances the character of the building itself. The offices inside and the characters’ wardrobe all reflect the time frame in which the movie was set and released. Eaton’s trench coat adds more charisma and noir panache.

            Irving Gertz’s music is suspenseful, and, at times, energy-filled. The opening sequence’s intense music may be a bit extreme and bombastic, but, nevertheless, it communicates the messaging appropriately. The main theme is aptly patriotic and catchy.

            Jacques Tourneur’s direction of The Fearmakers is impressive. From the calculated writing, to the mysterious atmosphere, enjoyable performances, and pertinent message, Tourneur’s supervision and execution of the film is a demonstration of his strong, often noir-filled, directorial repertoire.

Image Courtesy of United Artists

Image Courtesy of United Artists

            Overall, The Fearmakers is a criminally underrated movie. If you are looking for a great conspiracy-filled classic noir, then you cannot go wrong with this movie. It is incredibly relevant in 2017. The clear-cut manner in which the film’s excellent underlying message of standing up for justice and doing what is right is a highlight and memorable feature of the movie. We need more messages like that from Hollywood.

Back Matter:[2]

Distributor: United Artists

Production: Pacemaker

Director: Jacques Tourneur

Producer: Martin H. Lancer

Screenwriter: Elliot West (screenplay); Chris Appley (screenplay); Darwin Teilhet (book)

Director of Photography: Sam Leavitt

Editor: Paul Laune; J.R. Whittredge

Set Decoration: James Roach

Music: Irving Gertz

Wardrobe Supervisor: Frank Roberts

Budget: N/A

Release Date: October 1958 (USA)

Cinematographic Process: N/A

Laboratory: N/A

Aspect Ratio: N/A

Copyright Holder: N/A

Cast: Dana Andrews; Dick Foran; Marilee Earle; Mel Tormé; Roy Gordon; Veda Ann Borg; Kelly Thordsen; Joel Marston; Oliver Blake

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Rating: N/A; Descriptors: N/A

Running Time: 1 hours and 25 minutes (85 mins.)

Bibliography: 

[1] http://filmmakeriq.com/lessons/the-basics-of-lighting-for-film-noir/.

[2] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0051605/?ref_=ttspec_spec_tt.