The Fearmakers (MGM LE Collection) Review
Each time I look at Jacques Tourneur's filmography I'm a little puzzled by how quickly it seems to have sputtered out. As was common for the time, Tourneur started his directing career by doing several shorts and then transitioned to features. His creative breakthrough came in collaborating with producer Val Lewton on three very noirish horror movies (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man) that confirmed the power of atmosphere in the genre. The seminal film noir Out of the Past followed, as did a strong mixture of westerns and adventure yarns. Tourneur's run in the forties and about three-quarters of the way into the fifties makes for a highly impressive example of how to turn studio pictures into subtle, rewarding and personal works defined by the totality of a director's output. But something changed as the end of the 1950s approached, when Tourneur was clearly still in the prime of his career. His two 1957 releases, Nightfall and Night of the Demon, are both top tier efforts by most anyone's standards. Then television came calling. A series he was involved with called Northwest Passage started in 1958, when Tourneur was already working on Walter Winchell's show. More small screen programs were in the cards, but Tourneur's relevance as a film director had essentially already expired.
For its position on this time line alone, dated 1958 and immediately following Night of the Demon, The Fearmakers holds significant curiosity value. (Add in Mel Torme in Coke-bottle glasses and you're set.) As with Tourneur's previous studio feature, Dana Andrews stars. The two men were well acquainted by this point, having also made Canyon Passage in 1946, and apparently good friends. Andrews had a keen awareness of how to play a protagonist on film. He gave little, did less, yet almost always could convey an interesting vulnerability in his otherwise solid leading men. His style of acting was a perfect fit for Tourneur, who so often seemed to favor subtlety and near-laconic inaction in his characters. The role Andrews plays here is another in Tourneur's long line of men who are shown as strangers out of their elements and on the cusp of trouble. He's in a very noir situation of returning to a life from which he'd long been absent and finding things have changed considerably, and not to his liking.
Andrews is Captain Alan Eaton, a military man who served in Korea but has been held in Chinese prison camps for nearly two years. At the start of the film, a bearded Andrews is seen being released and allowed to return to the States. He has a public relations firm in Washington, D.C. but is surprised to find many changes have taken place there, including his partner no longer being around, since he left. The plot ties all of this together with the timely efforts and effects of lobbyists and a great deal more in the way of conspiracies, manipulations and complex means of control. It's slightly reminiscent of The Manchurian Candidate in some regards. Best of all is that things unfold without any real opportunity for expectations to muddy the waters. Each new development is, if not revelatory, well-structured and layered thoughtfully enough to allow for nice little surprises as to where the film is going at any given point. The overly simple, single-lined plot summary included on the back of the case ("A Korean veteran cooperating with a Senate committee uncovers subversives.") is a terrible attempt at a synopsis that hints at none of the film's pleasures.
The Fearmakers is able to, in addition to holding a fine level of suspense, suggest that there are enemies of a different stripe plotting from the inside in the U.S. These men are depicted not as ideological servants to any real cause but striving for purely economic self-interest. The idea of money as a tool of corruption is hardly novel, but Tourneur's film uses it as a particularly terrifying palmgreaser. The fronts and lobbyists seen are the stuff of our worst fears. Empty suits whose campaigns are paid for by dollars attached to an agenda will, once elected, have no qualms about advancing the positions of their benefactors. What Andrews uncovers is just one of the cogs of the machine. That he's not portrayed as any sort of self-righteous crusader is particularly refreshing. Indeed, the character of Eaton is brimming with noir attributes. (Visually, the film holds no such interests and is actually rather pedestrian, with the shadow of a boom mic even visible at one point.)
He suffers from what is clearly some form of post-traumatic stress disorder, including sudden blackouts at usually inopportune times. Flashbacks punctuate how Eaton almost seems unsure as to whether he can trust his own instincts and perhaps still suspicious of what's real and what isn't. As he moves around Washington in a light-colored trench coat, the atmosphere he stumbles into feels thick with dread and disorientation. That Eaton is a military veteran just returning from overseas perfectly fits the noir profile. More comforting is the presence of an inevitable love interest and accomplice (Marilee Earle) for Eaton. They share a much too happy, very over the top ending where, after having foiled the nogoodniks who threatened America and its citizens' livelihoods, Andrews gives a brief speech pocked with propaganda and passionately kisses the girl amid a backdrop of the Lincoln Memorial. For a film that generally adheres so closely to a reasonable, non-hysterical tone throughout, this wrap-up is an especially dated misstep, and one better suited for the glut of more sensationalized pictures of the time.
The Fearmakers comes to recordable media as part of the MGM Limited Edition Collection. The made-on-demand disc can be yours, through the proper retail channels such as Amazon.com, for about $20.
A 1958 movie in Academy aspect ratio indicates the presentation is probably open matte, and indeed that would appear to be the case here. The progressive transfer at least looks reasonably good. Minimal damage, mostly white speckles, exists in the print used. Overall sharpness and contrast are both slightly superior to most of the other MGM LE Collection discs I've seen. There is no infusion of an unwanted greenish hue prevalent in other black and white transfers from this line. Perhaps a more crisply detailed image would have engendered additional enthusiasm but, on the whole, the technical quality here shouldn't allow for any hesitation to potential purchasers.
Audio is basic, dull English mono that nonetheless fits the experience just fine and allows dialogue to be easily understood. A very light hiss can sometimes be heard in the background. There are no subtitles included.
Zero in the extras department.