The Fearmakers (1958)

The Fearmakers (1958) tells a wonderfully revealing story of war, of advertising and the obfuscation of the line between corporate and government life.

Despite quality issues and any stand out cast performances, The Fearmakers also sounds an early alert concerning the war on the public that has become a ubiquitous feature of modern living.

Because of course, if it was unseen in the 1950s or 1940s, and if it was criminal, psychological and at odds with the public vision, it was going to be a subject of film noir.

There seems something peculiarly prescient about The Fearmakers, even if it is a part of the obsessive hunting of Communists that took over American public and cultural life in the 1950s. 

The real threat to freedom and civil society were already at work in the 1950s however, and The Fearmakers is a great introduction to the science of public relations, which had already been perfected over several decades and through World War Two, before it began to be used out in the open, in the form of political theatre.

Beginning with the revelation of some seemingly nonpartisan political messages being shaped by a public-relations firm that is secretly controlled by communists, we uncover a fully infiltrated hotbed of Commies that are determined to undermine the American government.

This was the era of course that convinced America that smoking was good for your health, or was at the very least, harmless. To achieve this required a super-powerful combo of public relations, science and polling, government support and media complicity.

One of these infiltrators falsifies the statistics and poll data in order to make or break various candidates to public office. In his efforts, the corporate leader of this operation makes big bucks out of this, aided by a network of subversives.

Straightening up for Civvy Street
Dana Andrews in The Fearmakers (1958)

Quite specifically The Fearmakers introduces the practises and inner workings of public relations and opinion, industrial research, consumer analysis. When war-wounded and traumatised Dana Andrews gets on the aeroplane to Washington to resume his old life, pre-Korean War, he just so happens to run into a nuclear scientist, who reminds him among other things that not only is his science of public relations useful, it will in a short time be working hand in hand with that of nuclear science.

Washington shockers! Dana Andrews in The Fearmakers (1957)

Washington on the slab! Dana Andrews in The Fearmakers (1957)

Washington sleaze! Dick Foran in The Fearmakers (1957)

In fact, as a strange touch, the world has gotten different since the outset of the Korean War, and filters have been introduced to cigarettes. It's not a theme that returns, but it is noteworthy because cigarettes were quite a large part of the type of opinion forming and propagandising of the 1950s.

Dana Andrews traumatised military captain says that he would find it hard getting used to these fancy filters on the cigarettes, while the nuclear scientist assures him that he will be getting used to them. Either way, both are going to have to get used to round the clock propaganda.

PTSD. Dana Andrews in The Fearmakers (1957)

It's a reminder perhaps that things are moving fast in US society, and that any conservatism may be set to be challenged. The 1960s are close, also, but nobody knew what that would bring either. The Korean War, from 1950 to 1953, was little discussed in the cinema of the time, and likely far too hot on the tails of the World War for anyone to have any serious appetite for. Unlike the World War, the Korean War was marked by Cold War paranoia and a complexity of origins and causes that may have had little to do with America for most of the 1940s.

PTSD flashbacks to Chinese torture in The Fearmakers (1958)

By the time Captain Alan Eaton returns, the ideas and concepts behind 'commie brainwashing' seem to be common parlance. Dana Andrews is also great at the start when he returns to his old business to find it has been sold and that his partner is deceased - a quality film noir set up, especially when the man in charge now is a cad and makes constant suggestions about Dana Andrews' sanity and the fact that the 'commies' have got to him. 

Washington Romancing! Dana Andrews and Marilee Earle in The Fearmakers (1957)

Indeed, the 'commies' seem to be taking it pretty hard in the late 1950s. As Dana Andrews leaves his former DC office, he opens a door to find a rather staged sight - a focus group listening to a man who is explaining to them "the way we handle the labor unions"!

Military training comes good in The Fearmakers (1958) - Dana Andrews, Kelly Thordsen and Veda Ann Borg

And immediately after this, Andrews is greeted by an old Senator friend who says "you wouldn't believe how much red tape it took to get you guys back!" Although it is a joke, taken at its face value this is a hideous indictment of the US trying to exit the War, and of course at the expense of me like our hero here - who was busy being tortured while that rad tape kept ;winding up the bureaucrats.

The lessons however are mind-blowingly prescient. For example:

Taking public opinion is useful. Making public opinion is dangerous.


You wind up serving your client, and swindling the public . . .

On top of that we learn about non-governmental lobbying groups set up in Washington to influence Congress, a fascinating insight into the future. 

Marilee Earle in The Fearmakers (1958)

Washington by cigarette light! Dana Andrews in The Fearmakers (1957)

These are highly financed groups, we hear, but these professionally packaged campaign groups with fake front organisations which even have pre-written laws ready to be rubber-stamped. The subject of The Fearmakers is illegitimate lobbying, and the professional loudspeakers, as they are here called, and influence peddlers.

Public Relations gets physical in The Fearmakers (1958)

Leading as they say here, down the road to another Munich. The contention is that there is a fine line in Washington at this time between paid foreign agents and paid consultants, and PR firms now simply spreading treasonous propaganda.

More traditional film noir values are present in this realistic object view into Washington and its corruption, and these take the form of murder, for that is what a newsman that Eaton is introduced to calls the death of his partner; and the covert assignment, undertaken by the innocent civilian; for when Dana Andrews gets the low down on his former business from the Senator, he is tasked with going back into the firm, undercover.

The veteran's other adventures on civvy street are also exciting. First he falls for his new secretary, who runs hot and cold with a dreadful secret she can't tell him. He also has a PTSD attack in the office, and when he gets to the lodging house he is recommended to by the nuclear scientitst, he finds it is run by an abusive drunk, who is trapped in a cruel relationship with a taunting woman, who comes on to him, while both of the seem also to be up to something.

Mel Tormé in The Fearmakers (1958)

Two decades previously, the infiltrators were in the factories and machine shops pictured in Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), but by the late 1950s, they'd gone corporate, they'd gone middle class, and were impossible to separate from the structures that supported them.  

The conversations which pop up in The Fearmakers about special interests and polling reveal ethics that don't exist today simply because the types of things being discussed are now considered acceptable.

The Fearmakers is a condemnation of public relations at its most base. As one character notes: "taking public opinion is useful; making public opinion is dangerous". It is very reminiscent of the notion of "engineering consent", an idea that Edward Bernays first published in 1947.

One of the frequent themes in 1940s film noir is the soldier returning from World War Two, to find himself lost and alone once more in a civil society that has turned criminal in his absence.

The purity of late film noir is in the awfulness of the subject matter, which includes the nuclear threat and the full on paranoia of the Red Scare and the what was by then, perpetual fear of Communism. Then there is the theme corporate corruption, which in the film noir cycle makes it progression from prohibition in the 1930s, through the crime combos and into the boardrooms of big business.

Washington car ride in The Fearmakers (1958)

Two great examples of this might be The Crooked Way and Somewhere in the Night; but there are others to chose from, each with the same theme of the war-torn male returning to a somewhat changed urban environment. These films also usually deal with PTSD, as best they can.

We say ‘as best they can’, because of course there was no such diagnosis as PTSD in this era, and it is fascinating to see how filmmakers expressed this condition ― something that people at the time knew existed, but could not quiet quantify, name or pin down. The difference with the Korean war here noted by the filmmakers of The Fearmakers, is the idea of brainwashing by torture; inhabiting a mind so abused that he lives in a constantly unstable state. The PTSD is referred to by Dana Andrews' character is that they are 'war souvenirs'.

The Fearmakers (1958) tell as a similar story but with two twists absolutely pertinent to the late 1950s. The soldier in question is returning from the Korean theatre of war ― and the criminality he stumbles into is not focused on a seedy underbelly, populated by thugs, hoods, molls and hired killers. The criminality in The Fearmakers is primarily corporate, and the corporate life is certainly a theme of later film noir.

Gone are the gang bosses, to be replaced with leaders of industry. Gone are the hoods, to be replaced with the kind of private operators who only came to public light during the Watergate scandal of the 1970s, with its ‘White House plumbers.’  Gone are the molls ― here replaced by secretaries.

It is a fascinating paradigm shift. The Korean War is pictured right from the off, and with none of the commentary or propaganda that often came with war-themed noir of the 1940s. We simply see the soldier played by Dana Andrews being tortured as the credits roll, and we never encounter any description of the war, any discussion of what happened in the war, and what America was even doing there. This aspect of the movie simply closes with the opening credits, leaving the film noir PTSD storyline to unfold in an occasional and erratic manner through the rest of the film.

There’s actually a true dearth of movies about the Korean War, especially if you compare it to World War Two and Vietnam. How many can you name?

There’s Pork Chop Hill and The Steel helmet ― and there is The Manchurian Candidate as some of the better known ones; with The Manchurian Candidate often coming up in discussion of The Fearmakers, because of the subject of brainwashing; the late 50s vogue. And it appears that a certain amount of people also think that M*A*S*H (1970) is set during the Vietnam War. There is a List of Korean War Films on Wikipedia, but The Fearmakers may not however entirely qualify, despite its grisly credit sequence, and its PTSD flashback scenes.

This is maybe because The Fearmakers is about yet another two wars ― the war against the public as waged by the political establishment with its cohorts in the world of advertising; and the war against Communism.

The Fearmakers is on the surface a Red Scare movie, but the actual scare is far larger still, and with us to this very day. The actual scare is the creation of public opinion, and in this The Fearmakers does what film noir does best, which is to tap into social undercurrents, and dramatise them against the backdrop of the positive images of American life which as the century reached its high water mark, were positively reinforced by Hollywood itself.

The fight for justice in Washington in The Fearmakers (1958)

Side interest may be cited for the emergence of the theme of corporate office politics, certainly in the way that the character of the rather geeky Barney, played by Mel Tormé in what may have been Mel's only film noir outing. Barney is the talented geek behind much of the corrupt PR company's success, but he is unable to control his desires, and makes an inappropriate lunge for the secretary Lorraine. 

Washington Romancing!
Dana Andrews and Marilee Earle in The Fearmakers (1957)

With this romancing on The Capitol, the story of The Fearmakers is supposed to end. But it does not end.

As a pleasant postscript to Korea and nod to the future, Dana Andrews sums up the PR operation:

"You're manufacturing fear in order to sell your 'peace at any price' campaign!"

"What chance do you think a brainwashed psycho like you would have of convincing anybody of anything?!"


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