Bright Lights Film Journal

Commies, Commies, Everywhere – Tourneur’s The Fearmakers

Commie on a plane – Oliver Blake and Dana Andrews in The Fearmakers

Under the credits of Jacques Tourneur’s The Fearmakers (1958) we see a bearded Dana Andrews being tortured by Chinese communists. The bulk of the film concerns what happens to Andrews’ character after he is released from the Korean/Chinese prison camp and returns to the US of A.

When Andrews gets on a plane, the passenger who sits next to him is an atomic physicist who lectures him on the dangers of nuclear proliferation – in short, a communist! When Andrews returns to the public relations firm where he was a partner prior to his Korean War imprisonment, he discovers the agency has been taken over by – what else? – commies. Looking for a place to stay in the Washington, D.C. area, he ends up at a rooming house run by a beer-drinking lout and his aging slut of a wife who are both – you guessed it – undercover commies.

It would be easy to assume that the Andrews character is delusional, and that his brainwashing at the hands of the Chinese has left him in a state where he sees communists and fellow travelers everywhere, whether they exist or not. The film doesn’t entertain this notion for an instant , the commies really are everywhere.

Anti-communist films were a staple of the post-WWII era. Even the young Ingmar Bergman made one (This Can’t Happen Here, 1950). Two of the best known American examples are I Married a Communist aka The Woman on Pier 13 (director Robert Stevenson, producer Howard Hughes, 1949) and Invasion USA (director Alfred E. Green, producer Albert Zugsmith, 1952). They all share a tone of hysteria.

Not so Tourneur’s film. If anything defines Tourneur as a director, it is a penchant for subtlety and understatement. According to Chris Fujiwara, who wrote a good book on Tourneur, Tourneur was hired to direct The Fearmakers because the film’s star, Dana Andrews, demanded it. Andrews had worked with Tourneur twice before (Canyon Passage, Curse of the Demon), and they shared a taste for low-key performance. Another characteristic of Tourneur that made him well-suited for this film is the feeling he brought to almost all his projects of something going on beneath the surface. That “something beneath the surface” often takes the form of a hidden cult – the cat people in Cat People (1942), the voodoo practitioners in I Walked With a Zombie (1943), the devil worshipers in Curse of the Demon (1957), the communist underground in The Fearmakers. These tendencies made Tourneur particularly at home in the world of film noir (see 1948’s Out of the Past).

Consistent with Tourneur’s noir worldview, the communist presence in The Fearmakers is shadowy and vague. No one we see, apart from the scientist on the plane, appears to be supporting the movement for ideological reasons. Jazz singer Mel Tormé (wearing glasses with coke-bottle lenses) plays a wimpy accountant who helps implement the PR agency’s plans not out of dedication, but because he thinks it might get him laid. The head of the agency, burly Dick Foran, is in it solely for the money and the power. The couple who run the boarding house are only in it for the bucks. Since the tenets of communist ideology are never even discussed, the film becomes instead a critique of post-war American egoism and greed.

In contrast to its vagueness about communism, the film is quite pointed in its critique of the PR business. Back when Andrews’ character helped found the agency, all they did was take polls and measure public opinion. Now they ask questions designed to shape public opinion, while targeting pre-selected sample groups to produce preordained results. What’s worse , what outrages and appalls Andrews the most , is that they use the results of their polling to market favored political candidates “like you would a pack of cigarettes or a bar of soap.”

The Andrews character would turn over in his grave if he could see today’s reality where every major political candidate employs his or her own PR firm. While in today’s world The Fearmakers’ attitude toward the Red Menace might seem quaint, its indictment of K Street lobbyists and PR firms is timelier than ever.

Tip o’ the hat to TCM for screening this rarity.