A mystery thriller made in Hollywood during the mid-1940s by one of early cinema’s most influential filmmakers has an unlikely humourous streak running through it. Mark Fraser looks back at a work which easily could have been far more pessimistic than it actually is.
Despite the late film critic/author David Overbey’s assertion that, by 1944, Fritz Lang’s “view of humanity began to darken so that he was able to create some of the best (film noir works) made in the USA”, it seems the director was still in a good mood when he released Ministry of Fear during the same year.
Although a reputable entry in the noir canon, the movie is also quite quirky – so much so that it sometimes comes across more as a mild comedy of errors than a taut espionage thriller.
Part of the reason for this is the fact the story – based on a Graham Greene novel and set in England during the Second World War – is not so much a straightforward narrative as it is a dream, wherein a series of surreal and sometimes seemingly irreconcilable events provide the basis for the plot twists which permeate the film.
While Ministry of Fear is not exactly satiric, it undeniably contains an element of the bizarre that manages, in a rather humourous way, to bounce around within its cloak and dagger milieu.
The movie begins with the swinging pendulum of a wall clock as the minutes slowly approach 6pm, suggesting, perhaps, that Lang’s opening visual salvo (which supplies the backdrop for the credits) is an attempt to hypnotise the audience before proceeding with the story at hand.
It’s highly likely its toing and froing has already mesmerised the film’s protagonist Stephen Neale (Ray Milland), who is watching it from the other side of his Lembridge Asylum room waiting for the top of the hour to arrive.
Having just spent two years in the county facility for the mercy killing of his unseen wife, Neale has his suitcase packed and is ready to leave the moment the six chimes conclude. Despite his doctor’s (Lester Matthews) advice that he go somewhere quiet and find employment, the soon-to-be-released man is instead intent on travelling to London where he plans to “spend the first month being pushed and jammed by the biggest crowds I can find”.
Things, however, do not go to plan. After buying his train ticket at the local station, he is attracted to a nearby village fete being run by the Mothers of Free Nations, a charity group which, it turns out, is not what it seems.
While the people at this well-lit event are welcoming enough, it still feels a little out of place given it is being held during the early hours of the evening while parts of the country are being bombed on a nightly basis by the Germans.
Neale is invited by a stallholder to try and win a cake by guessing its weight. Although initially unsuccessful, helpful palm reader Mrs Bellane (Aminta Dyne) later tells him the correct answer, thus allowing him to garner the prize.
It turns out, however, that the Mothers of Free Nations have given the wrong man this culinary delight, which instead should have been delivered to a blond chap (Dan Duryea) who arrives just as Neale is leaving.
Just what exactly is in the cake isn’t revealed until well into the movie. Nevertheless it is important enough for Neale – who, upon request, refuses to hand it back – to be followed by a “blind” man (Eustace Wyatt) into his train compartment, after which he is knocked on the head and robbed by his deceptive travelling companion when the journey is interrupted by a Luftwaffe raid.
Although he chases his assailant through a swamp – and gets shot at from what appears to be the ruins of an old farmhouse in the process – Neale’s quest to retrieve the cake is stymied when some German bombs fall around them, blowing up the gun toting thief and his dessert booty.
On arriving in London, he hires a day-drinking private detective (Erskine Sanford) to help him look into the charity. Once at its head office, though, organisers Wili Hilfe (Carl Esmond) and his sister Carla (Marjorie Reynolds), a pair of helpful Austrian expats who have fled Hitler’s Europe, accompany him to Mrs Bellane’s house, who this time turns out to be a blond femme fatal-type (Hillary Brooke) – and not the older palm reader from the Lembridge fete – just as she is about to conduct a séance.
Neale’s confusion is compounded when another of the participants, Mr Cost (Duyea again), the blond man who wanted the cake in the first place, arrives at the scene. Denying they have already met, Cost later gets shot in the head during the eerily-lit séance (a marvelous piece of lighting by silent movie veteran cameraman Henry Sharp) – possibly by the protagonist, who not only has the phony blind man’s pistol in his possession, but seriously flips out when the younger Mrs Bellane indicates she is in contact with the spirit of his dead wife.
Naturally, Neale is forced to go on the lam, a journey that eventually leads him to a Nazi spy ring.
Against the grain
Although Ministry of Fear does eventually work as an espionage thriller in its own right, one can’t help feel that Lang and his scriptwriter Seton I Miller had their tongues firmly in their cheeks while cobbling this screen adaptation together.
While not exactly a comedy per se, the movie’s mysterious logic is nevertheless mischievous enough to suggest the pair hadn’t set out to make something dark, even though they do utilise many of the usual film noir tropes.
As a result, there’s plenty of interestingly composed and beautifully-lit black and white shots in this work, which moves along at quite a rapid pace despite some of its confounding logistics.
Its narrative also contains just enough “hostile forces” that threaten “the frail happiness of men and women with violence and chaos” (Overbey, 1979) to keep the most ardent noir fan happy.
Having said that, there’s also a strange buoyancy about it all. Despite being a movie involving society’s underbelly (which in this case comes in the form of the Nazis), Ministry of Fear pushes an improbable envelope, making it curiously strange instead of thrilling.
In defense of the US-born Overbey’s above-mentioned observation vis-à-vis Lang’s growing pessimism post 1944, it is relevant when looking at something like the director’s The Big Heat (1953), wherein “the whole of society seems touched by corruption, greed and violence”.
This is not, however, something that necessarily applies to Ministry of Fear, a film which literally ends with a joke.
Even Lang (1890– 1976) – who himself fled Germany in the 1930s before starting his Hollywood career with Fury in 1936 – may have agreed with this.
“Some of my pictures show dark things about men and life, of course,” he once said.
“Some of the later ones maybe even are a bit pessimistic. However, I think that all of my pictures are portraits of the time in which they were made … I always made films about characters who fought against the circumstances and the traps they found themselves in. I don’t think that is pessimistic.”
David Overbey: “Fritz Lang”, The Movie (Orbis Publishing, 1979) Volume I, pp 88-91
All quotes included in the review are sourced from this article.
Words by Mark Fraser
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Ministry of Fear was reviewed on Powerhouse Films’ UK limited edition Blu-ray which was released on August 24, 2018.