What I remember:
This was a film I saw in college, I believe in one of my classes. 1944 was a year chock full of the earliest Film Noir offerings. Along with “Ministry of Fear”, two other favorites of mine that came out that year were Wilder’s classic “Double Indemnity”, and “Murder, My Sweet”, Edward Dmytryk’s poorly renamed yet stylish take on the Chandler masterpiece “Farewell, My Lovely” (I’ll be re-watching this film soon). Lang, who virtually invented Noir with the iconic “M”, was surely in his comfort zone in the nascent genre.
The Austrian born Lang emigrated to England, then to the USA before the war, and avoided Nazi persecution. He was eugenically Jewish, though his mother had converted long before Nazism and raised him as Roman Catholic. Supposedly Lang left Germany the day that Goebbels offered him a job as head of the German studio UFA. This film was shot in California, but takes place in England.
When I think of “Ministry of Fear”, two other films spring immediately to mind. The first is Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps”, obviously a huge influence on Lang. The plots are similar; wrongly accused men are fleeing authorities and running up against international spy rings. Of course the stakes are far higher with a wartime film, and Hitchcock’s movie was made in 1935. The other connection I make is with the Coen Brothers 1st feature, “Blood Simple”. At the end of this movie, the brothers steal a climactic image from Lang, gun shots through a wall into a darkened room, exposing shafts of light. Geek that I am, I literally jumped out of my seat and yelled “Ministry of Fear” in the theater, to which my date responded “Shut up!” I was very proud of myself, regardless, for catching this visual quote.
My memory of the film was that it was tense, funny and very stylized. I thought the leads were a bit thinly drawn, but when you are channeling Hitch, you don’t really spend too much time on character depth.
“You wouldn’t kill your own brother, Karla?”-Willi Hilfe
A man (Stephen Neale, played by Ray Milland) is released from captivity in a mental asylum in Lembridge, England. As he waits for his train to London, he goes to a small fund-raising fair and innocently gets steered into winning a cake by guessing it’s weight. On his way to London, a man posing as blind knocks him out, steals the cake and subsequently gets blown up in an air raid. Once in London, our curious hero begins to ask about the organization that ran the fair, to find out what was so special about the cake. He meets a brother and sister pair of Austrian refugees who are running the organization, and begins to see that it is a cover for an international spy ring, whose tendrils reach into the Ministry of Home Security itself. He falls in love with the sister, and we find out that he was in the asylum for euthanizing his 1st wife, who was in great pain from an end stage fatal illness. Neale’s inquiries take him to a séance, where a man gets shot and killed, and Neale is the fall guy. Eventually Scotland Yard gets involved, and we find out that our cake/McGuffin had microfilm with pictures of sensitive war plans. The issue that remains is whether our Austrian siblings are involved or innocent.
Q- Was my memory accurate?
The story was adapted from a novel by the great Graham Greene, and it is right up Hitchcock’s alley. Seton I. Miler, a writer known for swashbucklers like “The Adventures of Robin Hood” and “The Sea Hawk” did the adaptation. I wonder if Hitch was offered the chance to film this, and either turned it down or was beaten out by Miller, Lang and company. There are so many elements from the Hitchcock oeuvre that it’s hard to tally, but of course I will attempt; bumbling gumshoes, a false accusation, scary cops, a McGuffin, friendly evildoers, and some great imagery. Motivation is a big problem with this film. Stephen Neale chases after the blind man who stole his cake, but it’s not clear why he cares. One feels that he must know there is evil afoot, but is it really the business of a man who has been told to keep his nose clean and stay as far from police involvement as possible? Richard Hannay in “The 39 Steps” is literally running for his life, but Neale has no reason to get involved. He could have just as easily continued to London, living his life as normal. Instead, he constantly puts himself in danger by confronting the very people that would do him harm. I guess in a wartime film, people had no problem with courage being a part of everyday life. It seems a bit far-fetched from this perspective.
There really are only a few visual moments that hail straight from the film noir genre. The séance features a beautiful head shot of the medium, played by Hillary Brooke (veteran of a number of Sherlock Holmes movies). In a darkened room, the circle of participants becomes illuminated by a globe, and her face has a haunting and sculpted look to it. As so often happens in film séances, a shot is fired after the lights go out, and someone is killed.
Dude, don’t EVER go to a movie séance!
Anyway, the best noir imagery is saved for the climax. Besides the aforementioned bullet hole in the door, there is also a stunning shootout on a rainy rooftop. This scene ends with a glorious moment when the bad guys, who are firing from a darkened stairwell, suddenly see the light turn back on, turn away and start firing below them instead of at our heroes. The silhouette of the once menacing Scotland Yard Inspector then comes out of the stairwell, and we know our heroes are safe.
Another fine moment straight out of the Hitchcock songbook comes when Neale confronts the man he supposedly killed at the séance. Dan Duryea plays Travers the Tailor, who was referred to as Cost earlier. Travers acts like he never saw Neale before in his life, then stops to make a phone call. He dials the phone with the biggest, sharpest scissors you will ever see. They almost resemble a prop from “Get Smart”. The suspense is powerful during this scene, and you know whoever is on the other line of that phone is a bad guy. Neale memorizes the number, and redials, and the sister answers!
I really enjoyed the air raid shelter scene; when the alarm sounds people go to the Underground in their pajamas, children bring their pets in baby-doll strollers, and it is all so very British and charming.
That’s the good stuff. There is a lot of bad stuff, too, unfortunately. The plot is extremely heavy when you think about it, and the film could have been very dark, indeed. But this element is kept at arm’s length throughout. A baboon’s arm! All emotions are ratcheted down so drastically, as to make you wonder whether the entire cast was on some early form of Ritalin. When it is clear that the sister (Karla, played by the gorgeous Marjorie Reynolds of “Holiday Inn” fame) is falling in love with our hero, her bubbly personality lightens up the obviously heavy situation that she might be infatuated with a killer. And when Neale confesses to Karla about the mercy-killing of his 1st wife, the lack of intensity is stunning.
There is also the issue of budget. Many of the sets look like they were barely decorated. I am sure wartime funds were thin as can be, but somehow other movies of the time look pretty well decked out. Certainly “Double Indemnity” had no problems with bare bones sets and costumes.
This seems like a good time to discuss just how bland the acting is in “Ministry of Fear”. I really can’t think of a single performance in the film that stands out. Carl Esmond plays the brother Willi, and his is a one-note song of grinning ingenuousness. His delivery of the challenging line quoted above is almost comical.
The meatiest supporting parts could have been the Inspector, played by Percy Waram, or the gumshoe, played by Erskine Sanford (Mr. Carter in “Citizen Kane”- the bumbling Chronicle Editor). Waram is simply expressionless, there’s no “there” there. Sanford does bumbling very well, however his attempt at an English accent is laughable. As for Ray Milland, we all know the man can act. “Lost Weekend” and “The Uninvited” proved that. Of course he did also do “The Thing With Two Heads”, with Milland and Rosey Grier sharing a neck. In “Ministry of Fear”, Milland appears to be determined and a bit careless. Why women throw themselves at him is unclear. He doesn’t really exude charm, and as previously stated, his big emotional scene lacks any charge at all.
ON SECOND LOOK: “Ministry of Fear” is not considered a classic because it doesn’t deserve to be. It has some terrific, memorable shots and moments, but it cannot be compared to Lang’s great work in Germany, and it really does fade next to the brilliant Hitchcock works it resembles. It is too light-hearted and would have been much better if Lang had given it the same intensity and true noir feel of his masterpiece, “M.”
My guess is that he wanted to, but the studio heads at Paramount were afraid of terrorizing an already anxious American public, only a couple of months before D Day.
1st Look- ★★★1/2 2nd Look-★★1/2