Fritz Lang, 1944
Starring: Ray Milland, Marjorie Reynolds, Carl Esmond
During the London Blitz, Stephen Neale is released from a mental asylum. On his way back to London, he stop at a small carnival near the train station, visits with a strange fortune teller, and wins a cake based on her suggestions. Before his departure, people at the carnival try to persuade him to give the cake to another man, but he ignores them. He shares his train compartment with a blind man, who is later reveals not to be blind and steals the cake during an air raid. The man is killed, but Neale escapes and arrives in London. He begins investigating the carnival group, a charity called the Mothers of Free Nations, and meets its organizers, Willi and Carla, siblings and Austrian refugees. It seems the Mothers of Free Nations are not quite what they seem and Neale is soon ensnared in a web of murder, mystery, and blackmail.
Based on Graham Greene’s novel of wartime intrigue, mystery, and guilt, Lang and Greene were both allegedly disappointed with the film, but it’s one of Lang’s best American works and certainly one of his most underrated. This may seem like a standard war-time thriller upon first viewing and initially feels a bit like a rip-off of Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, Saboteur, or Foreign Correspondent, but it contains many of the surreal, nightmarish aspects of film noir and has an ever present sense of foreboding. A man – and not an innocent man – is lost in a labyrinthine city and surrounded by a claustrophobic, unnamable sense of dread. Though the threat is ultimately from an underground Nazi network, none of the obvious trappings are present, making the villainy far more ambiguous and menacing. This is certainly more like Lang’s Weimar masterpieces of surveillance, manipulation, and paranoia, such as M, Dr. Mabuse, or The Spies.
The murky nature of morality in Ministry of Fear is such that everyone is suspect and seems to be part of the conspiracy. Even Neale himself is not innocent. Like a more sinister Cary Grant, Ray Milland (The Lost Weekend, Dial M for Murder) is classy and stylish, but there is something dark moving beneath the surface of Neale’s unassuming, charming exterior. It doesn’t help that in the beginning of the film, he’s released from an asylum for undisclosed reasons into a war-torn world. Is he imagining everything that’s happening to him? It is later revealed that he was serving time after assisting in his wife’s suicide by poisoning, which effectively makes him a murderer. Apparently in the novel, there is the implication that both Neale and Carla are guilty – Neale as a murderer and Carla as a spy. Though this is an undercurrent of the film, in the book Neale (there called Rowe) actually poisons his wife, rather than assisting her suicide. In the film, Carla cold-bloodedly shoots her brother at point-blank range after learning that he’s the head of the underground Nazi organization. She does not do this in the book; rather he commits suicide after being cornered.
As with many of Lang’s early films, logic is inverted and perverted in Ministry of Fear. While Hitchcock’s similarly-themed war thrillers from the same period are relatively straight-forward, if visually artful tales of suspense and paranoia, Lang injects moments of the uneasy and the absurd into Ministry of Fear that don’t really have an equal in the thrillers of the day, but are more akin to film noir. Evidence is baked into a cake and sewn in an elegant suit of clothes; an unseen murder occurs during a séance; two women claim to be the same person – a matronly psychic and a blonde femme fatale with a gun in her purse; a briefcase full of books hides a bomb; and a menacing, though wholesome-looking tailor wields scissors the size of a sword while sweating over his own guilt. This is certainly the least propagandistic of all the wartime thrillers and the brief happy ending where Neale and Carla plan their wedding doesn’t provide an ounce of comfort that the world has been made right again.
In addition to strong direction and some wonderful cinematography from Henry Sharp (Duck Soup), Milland’s sympathetic performance is bolstered by solid appearances from Marjorie Reynolds (Holiday Inn, The Time of Their Lives), Carl Esmond (Sergeant York), Dan Duryea (Woman in the Window, Scarlet Street), and Alan Napier (Batman TV series). Though the script occasionally falters and changes tone a few times, Ministry of Fear comes highly recommended. The film has a lovely, recent Blu-ray release from Criterion, though not many special features are included. I’m still holding out hope for a Blu-ray Lang box set.