MINISTRY OF FEAR

 (Fritz Lang, USA, 1944) 86 minutes

MINISTRY OF FEAR

Director: Fritz Lang
Producer: Seton I. Miller
Screenplay: Seton I. Miller,
  from the novel by Graham Greene
Cinematography: Henry Sharp
Editor: Archie Marshek
Music: Victor Young
Ray Milland (Stephen Neale)
Marjorie Reynolds (Carla Hilfe)
Carl Esmond (Willi Hilfe)
Hillary Brooke (Mrs. Bellane #2)
Percy Waram (Inspector Prentice)
Dan Duryea (Cost / Travers the Tailor)
Alan Napier (Dr. JM Forrester)

Reviews and notes

This is a wonderfully atmospheric, almost expressionistic thriller, packed with memorable moments: the jolly village fête ominously taking place at night; the open door of the railway carriage and the muted tapping which heralds the arrival of the blind man out of a cloud of steam; the rat-like tailor using an enormous pair of cutting-shears to dial his call of warning moments before they are found plunged into his stomach. And right from the opening shot of Milland waiting alone in a darkened room for the stroke of midnight - the magic hour which will release him from one paranoiac nightmare (the mercy killing of his wife) into another - Lang sets his characteristic seal of fatality on the action.
- Tom Milne, Time Out.


Fritz Lang appears to have invented the modern spy film genre, adapting most of its distinguishing features from film and pulp fiction thrillers. His first films in Hollywood were fierce examinations of American crime and the nature of justice, as seen in the anti-lynching film Fury, the Bonnie & Clyde tragedy You Only Live Once and even the 'crime is not profitable' light comedy-cum-musical You and Me. But after a couple of westerns at Fox the war came, and Lang turned his skill with high-tension espionage fantasies to the new conflict. Man Hunt is a London-set spy vs. spy saga about an English sportsman who trains his high-powered rifle on Adolf Hitler. The leftist Hangmen Also Die! invents a story around the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, detailing a Czech communist cell that bands together to resist the Nazi crackdown that follows. Invited to a new studio, Fritz Lang's next would be an adaptation of Graham Greene's Ministry of Fear. It takes place in a setting similar to Man Hunt, but the mood has changed entirely. Instead of a fearless adventurer, the hero is a neurotic nursing a guilt complex and ensnared in a shadowy conspiracy. It would seem to be perfect Lang film material.

Newly released from an asylum, Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) wins a prize cake at an English country fair, only to find that the fair staff intended it to be won by a mysterious Mr. Cost (Dan Duryea). When his train is stopped by an air raid, a blind man steals the cake, but is blown up in the Nazi bombardment. Motivated to make sense of the mystery, Neale contacts the war relief charity that sponsored the country fair and meets its charming organizers, Austrian refugees Willi and Carla Hilfe (Carl Esmond & Marjorie Reynolds). Stephen and Willi attend a séance given by Mrs. Bellane (Hillary Brooke of Invaders from Mars). More than one person from the fun-fair attends, along with noted anti-Nazi author J.M. Forrester (Alan Napier). The mysterious Mr. Cost shows up at the last minute, and when the room goes dark he is shot dead. Suspected as the murderer, Stephen goes on the run pursued by a strange man with a nail file (Percy Waram). An eccentric private detective he had hired, George Rennit (Erskine Sanford) is found dead, and suspicion falls on Neale for that killing as well. With both Scotland Yard and what seems to be a nest of spies on his tail, Stephen can only turn to the sympathetic Carla And Willi. But are they part of the conspiracy as well?

Ministry of Fear is Fritz Lang's second and last film for Paramount. Lotte Eisner's biography of Lang tells us that Lang's customary contract demand for revision rights was left out of this deal, so he was forced by writer / associate producer Seton I. Miller not to stray from the script. This explanation still sounds like an excuse, as almost every detail in the film follow's Lang's recipe for a spy show in the classic Dr. Mabuse tradition. The main change is that the emphasis is on the luckless victim instead of an evil mastermind. Lang's later, brilliant swan song feature The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse has striking similarities with this show, including a murder at a clairvoyant's séance and more than one character with a double identity. The basic novelty of the story is the now-trite concept of a helpless hero caught in an invisible conspiracy, watching his options close as an unseen group of villains frames him for crimes and kills his friends. In 1944, this was still something of a novel approach. Graham Greene was reportedly not happy with the movie, which downplayed the Neale character's neuroses. In the book Neale suffers a real nervous breakdown. He himself fears that the web of spies may be a paranoid delusion.

But the film of Ministry of Fear is told straight, and its hero is perplexed but reasonably composed. The script imposes a battery of superficial visuals to stress the character's anxiety, but without much effect - ticking clocks, an emphasis on strange objects like that mystery cake. Because of the wartime rationing of eggs the cake is considered quite a prize, even without its holding the MacGuffin-like secret the spies wish to ferret to Germany. Lang's most interesting visual effect is an almost-too clever final gag involving a bullet hole in a door. The best depiction of psychological distress is a key image where Neale waits in a tailor's shop for what might be a murderous conspirator. Sitting in a medium shot, Neale observes the room around him. We only see what's reflected in a large mirror behind him, and we can't tell what he's looking out. The image suggests a psychic detachment from his environment, an anxious, helpless isolation.

The problem is that Ray Milland otherwise plays the character in a fairly relaxed fashion. He functions well socially and has time to grow fond of the blonde Carla. He trades jokes with the jovial Willy, and matches wits with the seductive mystery woman Mrs. Bellane. About halfway through the show we find out why Neale was sent to the asylum. The unhappy, sordid reason makes sense, but it seems out of keeping with the polished Paramount world around us. It looks as if Ministry of Fear is meant to be a "theraputic" experience for Stephen Neale, but he really doesn't look or act like he needs to be cured.

So what we have is a set of beautifully conceived and directed espionage situations that never reach heights of drama or tension. Ministry of Fear is great fun the first time through, especially for Fritz Lang fans that can appreciate his style. Others may find it on the tame and uninvolving side.

Ray Milland is his usual utterly charming and likeable self. Marjorie Reynolds is sweet but makes little impression, considering that she eventually takes the Langian "blood revenge" role, as a sort of pantywaist Kriemhild character restricted to a couple of small rooms and a pistol. Carl Esmond is too obviously chosen as a 'nice guy' Austrian, a dodge that surely fooled nobody in 1944. Hillary Brooke's part never lets her get beyond a few sultry Mata Hari gestures. Also underused yet wholly effective is the great Dan Duryea, who puts a heck of a lot of menace into a couple minutes' worth of screen time. He injects tension at one point just by toying with a large pair of tailor's scissors, disturbingly close to Stephen Neale's stomach. Fritz Lang must have been impressed with Duryea, for the actor won plum parts in Lang's next two movies, The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street.
- Glenn Erickson, DVD Savant, 3 March 2013.


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