1940s, 3/4, Fritz Lang, Review, Thriller

Ministry of Fear

#23 in my ranking of Fritz Lang’s filmography.

It’s interesting to read that both Fritz Lang and the source novel’s author Graham Greene were unhappy with this film. It’s not Lang’s greatest work, but it entertains well enough. It’s also the first Hollywood film from Lang that, I feel, really looks like a Lang film from beginning to end. The sets are larger and slightly less realistic with greater depth, the use of shadows more pronounced, and the compositions more exact with a roving camera in certain spots. Surely, these things had appeared in his previous Hollywood films, but never has it felt like Lang was in complete control of the physical production like Ministry of Fear.

Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) is released from a mental institution after two years under a comfortable lock and key, and on his way to London (to be jostled about by as many people as possible to counter his isolation of the previous two years) he decides to take in a small, country fete organized by the Mothers of Free Nations, a charity that does…something. I think they try to get people out of war-torn parts of the world. Anyway, the charity’s real purpose isn’t important or germane to the plot. What’s important is that some mysterious happenings are going on around a cake. Neale sees a psychic who tells him the cake’s exact weight, which he uses to claim the cake in the contest for it. He walks away, but before he can get back to the train, another man jumps out of a car, runs to the psychic, and looks on ominously as the women of the fete try to talk Neale into giving up the cake unsuccessfully. He gets attacked by a supposedly blind man in the train which ends in a chase through the countryside and a bombing of a small house where the blind man gets hit and dies (there’s some wonderfully subtle black humor about this late in the film).

Neale decides that he’s going to get to the bottom of all of this when he gets back to London, but he does the normal thriller thing and refuses to go to the police. If he gets caught up with them, he’s convinced, they’ll throw him in jail because of the incident that led to his forced internment at the mental asylum. He hires a private detective and goes to the central office of the Mothers of Free Nations, run by Austrian sister and brother Carla (Marjorie Reynolds) and Willi (Carl Esmond). Both are happy and willing to help, and the first stop is for Willi to take Stephen to see the psychic, who actually lives in London, Mrs. Bellane (Hillary Brooke). This is not the same Mrs. Bellane who was in the small town, and the mystery deepens, especially when the lights go out during a séance and the man who Neale saw at the fete ends up dead on the floor from a shot to the head while Neale is holding a loaded gun in his pocket.

Who does Neale trust? Who does he turn to for help? Who is the man hiding outside of the private investigator’s office who keeps picking his nails with a pocketknife? Where did the private investigator disappear to? Who is this cabal of people who seem determined to frame him for a crime he didn’t commit? How does this all tie to a cake he won at a small country fete?

How this ends up manifesting in the film is through an unending sense of dread and low-level tension. I imagine that it reflects the source novel well in this regard, and considering Greene’s well-documented disdain for how Alfred Hitchcock made his British-era films, it ends up feeling like a counter-example to Hitchcock’s work. It’s in the suspense genre, but it’s more character driven and less filled with standout sequences of concentrated tension. Essentially, it’s not Man Hunt.

I think that conscious effort to keep away from more Hitchcock-like suspense ends up working against the film in the final third. It plays out a bit too flatly, the big confrontation between Neale and the man behind the curtain being a little wrestling match in a living room instead of something more drawn out, ornately designed, and intensely dramatic. This ending is more realistic, but less interesting than something Hitchcock would have dreamed up.

Who knows? Maybe Lang wanted to make something like that, but his screenwriter and producer were the same person, Seton I. Miller, limited how much Lang could change to fit his fancy. It’s interesting that while Lang’s hands were tied in changing the script, the film still feels so much like a Lang production from his German period.

Its first two-thirds is an almost dreamlike miasma of guilt (extending from Neale’s reason for being in the asylum in the first place) and paranoia. It’s quite effective. The final third doesn’t retain that dreamlike horror quality and becomes more straightforward. I was reminded of the much later Scorsese film Shutter Island where the dreamlike miasma ended up being exactly that, the rantings of a crazy person. Most films that try to balance their characters between madness and reality fall on the side that the mad person is actually sane and the conspiracy is always real. I think that convention ends up draining a lot of tension out of the genre in general since we always know that the madness isn’t really madness. So, these kinds of movies really hang on their ability to create characters that we invest in, and I think Milland succeeds. He’s lost, scared, and determined while never losing his cool. He carries the film on his shoulders because so much of it relies on his emotional state.

So, the film works. It’s conventional and operates in a fairly tight box, but Milland helps to elevate it and Lang’s expert handle of the physical production keeps things interesting visually. I’m going to have to read the book to see why both Greene and Lang felt like it failed, though.

Rating: 3/4

6 thoughts on “Ministry of Fear”

  1. Graham Greene is a festering anal fissure. I’ve been forced to read several of his books, so let me spoil this one so you don’t have to….
    ….sigh, no I won’t spoil it, not without request. But I know why Greene at least is dis-satisfied with this adaptation.

    Visually, this is lovely. There’s a great air of mystery and dread. The dead weight is that the bad guys are….brace yourself….Nazis. Yep, huge Nazi spy ring running in England this whole time, disguised as a charity. This is not the German-American Bund here. The Nazi espionage effort was laughable amateur, for all their counter-intelligence skill. (mind you, that’s partly due to a disgrunted Spaniard, but that’s a long, weird story) I simply couldn’t buy the Nazi’s have a huge organized intelligence operation running like this in England.

    Then we have the usual contemptible Graham Greene characters. He excels in writing male protagonists somewhat based on him whom you can’t help but loathe and bad guys who you know he’s secretly more interested in. I’m just not as delighted by the cast. Ray Milland is just bland enough to play the Graham Greene part, but I’m never delighted to see his name at the top bill….if there’s ever been a Ray Milland film festival, I’ve never heard of it. He’s fine, though. He was a hard working actor who got some time in the sun…somehow.

    Visually, this is sweet dark candy. I almost want to turn the sound off and just look at some of these shots.

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    1. Reading the bits in The Graham Greene Film Reader about Ministry of Fear, he doesn’t talk about his problems specifically but generically. There’s something about a major part of the novel being removed from the script (Lang wanted to quit the film when he found out the script had removed it, but he had already signed the contract). So, I’m okay with a spoiling.

      Yeah, it’s light. It doesn’t feel any lighter than the plot within something like North by Northwest or The 39 Steps, though. Hitchcock took that sort of thing and enlarged it cinematically, squeezing all the tension he could out of it, while Lang, despite the film’s visual flare, seems to have done it will little passion.

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      1. Ok, book differences: He killed his wife. Coldly, leaving her to die alone. Incredibly, he feels guilt over this. Guilt over his murder (and her kills her out of connivence to HIM, not out of mercy towards her, the book makes that clear) is a major theme that drives the main character in the book.

        Also Carla doesn’t kill her brother and she IS indeed a Nazi spy. The pair of them bond over secret, shared shame. And hawt illicit sex, because Graham Greene.

        It honestly reminded me of the ending of Thomas Harris’ terrible ‘Hannibal’ novel.

        But…the movie has visual style. It’s better than Man Hunt, not as good as ‘Hangmen Also Die’. More, better Lang films to come.

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      2. Yeah, that sounds much more purely Graham Greene.

        I also found out that he hated the John Ford adaptation of The Power and the Glory. The more I read about him, the more he kind of reminds me of Alan Moore.

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