Monday, February 21, 2011

GREEN FOR DANGER: 1946 Dir. Sidney Gilliat

What I remember:

Precious little, apparently. The years, they do take their toll. I have wracked my memory to recall the tiniest facts. This is what comes up. Alastair Sim plays an Inspector who is called in to investigate the accidental death of someone on the operating table. I believe this is a wartime O.R., and there are some nurses and surgeons having affaiars when they are not patching up the wounded. How very M*A*S*H- like! One of these nurses accuses someone, I don’t know, another nurse, a doctor, somebody-- of committing murder by purposefully not doing their job correctly. The Inspector comes to investigate, and he is a hoot! Sim, famous for his great portrayal of Scrooge in the best version of “A Christmas Carol”, made the film special, as I recall. The whole thing is like an Agatha Christie whodunit, but with a lot of humor and a really original construct.

After re-watching:

“In view of my failure - correction, comparative failure - I feel that I have no alternative but to offer you, sir, my resignation, in the sincere hope that you will not accept it”- Inspector Cockrill


It is England in 1944. A small surgical operating theatre is busy with home-front casualties due to the incessant bombing raids of the Axis. The latest injury is a few broken bones suffered by a Postman in a bombed house. He is told by all that his surgery is routine, and yet he dies on the operating table due to asphyxiation from gaseous anesthetics. The investigation stays internal, until an obviously perturbed nurse interrupts a dance by announcing that she knows it was murder, and she knows where the evidence is. When she is killed herself, Scotland Yard steps in and begins their own inquest. All the while, a love triangle complicates the situation. The Inspector has figured that there are 5 people who could have been involved with both murders; the surgeon Mr. Eden (Leo Genn), the anesthetist Dr. Barnes (Trevor Howard), Nurse Linley (Sally Gray), Nurse Woods (Megs Jenkins) and Nurse Sanson (Rosamund John). Eden, Barnes and Linley are the points of the triangle.
Q- Was my memory accurate?


Actually I was pretty much on target. The whole thing plays like the love-child of “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Murder She Wrote”. Obviously the tie-in to “M*A*S*H” is unavoidable. Anytime you have war-time surgeons having affairs, then it’s going to evoke that great comedy.
Is that like saying “anytime you have a Swedish Knight playing chess with Death then it’s going to evoke “The Seventh Seal””?

It’s a pretty good whodunit, there are a lot of red herrings slung about, and substituting a hospital for a mansion puts an entirely different spin on things. Primarily, these people’s jobs are about saving lives, not taking them. It seems very unlikely that you would find a murderer amongst these angels of mercy. There are moments where the war is evoked, especially in the ominous drone of planes, the sudden cut of engines signaling that a bomb is being dropped, and then the explosions. One has to think that in 1946 the memory of these horrors must have been quite fresh in the minds of the British audience. Also the sound of the German version of Tokyo Rose, “Germany Calling” is not only heard, but actually a plot device. Nevertheless, the mystery and love intrigue are front and center throughout the film. As earlier stated, the whole thing would be somewhat formulaic if not for the phenomenally drawn character of the Inspector, and the brilliantly comic portrayal by Alastair Sim.


There are some visually striking moments throughout this film. Very impressive is the scene in which the accusing nurse attempts to grab the evidence, and is confronted and killed. There are a lot of “Noir” images in this scene, one very memorable shot of the window opening and closing and the intermittent light exposing the murderer. Wilkie Cooper was the cinematographer, and though he is best known for his work with Ray Harryhausen on “Jason and the Argonauts” and “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad”, he had a long and varied career shooting in B&W, including “Stage Fright” for Alfred Hitchcock (a movie that also had Alastair Sim in the cast). Director Sidney Gilliat was known much more for his writing; among his credits are the Hitchcock masterpiece “The Lady Vanishes” and Hitch’s lesser known “Jamaica Inn”. Also he scripted the great “Night Train to Munich” by Carol Reed. Gilliat holds his own with this adapted screenplay from a book by Christianna Brand, the creator of Nanny McPhee. How much of the great comedy is Brand’s or Gilliat’s creation, and how much is Sim’s does not take a Scotland Yard Inspector to figure out. When only one character consistently gets you to laugh out loud, then you know it’s not just the script.


What else can I say about Mr. Sim in this movie? The man is pure genius. He is at once disrespectful, self-effacing, witty, caustic and broad. In one great bit of comic timing, he interrupts Mr. Eden and Nurse Linley romancing under the stars. While the surgeon spouts some sappy poetry and the two snuggle up, you are thinking about how cornball it all seems, and in the nick of time, the Inspector continues the poem from where Mr. Eden paused. The romantic moment is ruined, much to Eden’s chagrin, and much to the audience’s delight. Only Groucho could have done it any better. The capper comes, when the Inspector walks away, grinning happily, stops and purposefully pushes aside a bush to expose Dr. Barnes, who has been snooping on his girlfriend and her new interest.

Sim carries the film, and thank heaven. Some of the supporting actors are outright terrible, especially Judy Campbell as Sister Bates. She is the nurse who gets murdered early on, and she spends most of her time on screen doing the Norma Desmond silent screen big eyes. It is a laughably overacted part, not worthy of the rest of the film. The two male leads, Genn and Howard do a creditable job, Genn is a bit smarmy and Howard a bit stodgy, and that’s fine for what the film needs. Sally Gray is very lovely as the desirable Linley, but she looks like she stepped right out of a beauty parlor after almost being gassed to death. Megs Jenkins as Nurse Woods is probably the standout in the supporting cast. She has a nice meaty role, and she does it no disservice. When she confronts Eden to chide him about breaking up Linley and Barnes, it comes across as very real.


It’s on Netflix streaming, and is a quick hour and a half of fun diversion. There is no reason not to spend some time with this film. No, it’s not really a classic, but it’s worth watching for one reason in particular: a great comic actor at the very top of his game.

1st Look- ★★★1/2 2nd Look-★★★

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

“LITTLE MURDERS”- 1971 Dir: Alan Arkin

What I remember

Ahhh, 1971. What a year! Along with a personal milestone of an intimate nature (TMI? My apologies.), I can remember so much of that period in my life. It was my coming of age in so many different ways, but in particular I grew into the fanatical film freak that still revels in his freakitude. The year of great classics like “The French Connection”, “A Clockwork Orange”, “Harold and Maude” and “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” probably helped this happen.

Naturally a small black comedy like “Little Murders” would get swallowed up in this torrent of brilliance. New Hollywood was at warp speed, the sexual revolution was giving us steamy fare like “Carnal Knowledge” and “Maid in Sweden”, the Black power movement was represented by “Shaft” and “Sweet Sweetback”. Who even noticed this gem of modern satire? Well, I did, for one. The great cartoonist Jules Feiffer was responsible for the original play and the screen adaptation. He also wrote the play upon which “Carnal Knowledge” was based. “Little Murders” was not really about sex, or all of the great themes of the era like the women’s movement, civil rights or anti-war. It was about random cruelty, violence, anti-social behavior, passivity, aggression, love, and the general degradation of modern society. It was also about the funniest movie I had ever seen. Director Arkin’s turn as the beleaguered detective and Vincent Gardenia’s New York tough guy Dad stood out in an ensemble of amazing performances. This is a movie that could NEVER be made now, not even by an independent. Today’s Indie films are much like the mainstream of that era, pushing the mainstream of our time into the infantile. “French Connection” won Best Picture? Have you seen THAT lately? The hero is a shoe fetishist? There’s not a note of score during the historic, unbelievably tense car chase scene? Wait…the bad guy gets AWAY? 2011 Indie houses wouldn’t even touch that.

“Little Murders” was so outside the realm of normal filmmaking, as to make it a genre unto itself. A psychological-crime-love-family- absurd-black-comedy. I absoloutely loved this movie, and have seen it about 3 times, but not in many, many years.


“I want to be married to a big, strong, vital, virile, self-assured man…..that I can protect and take care of!” -Patsy Newquist


It’s dystopian New York in the 70’s, aka “Fun City”, where muggings and murders are a daily event, brown-outs are hourly occurrences and the police are outwitted and outnumbered. Hyper-aggressive Patsy Newquist (Marcia Rodd) tries to save Alfred Chamberlain (Elliott Gould, at the height of his popularity) from being mugged by a small group of teens, as she fights them off, he walks away, moving on immediately. She confronts him, and quickly realizes his passivity is monumental. Opposites attract in the strangest way, and the two get engaged. Alfred meets Patsy’s highly eccentric family, and she tries to change Alfred into the man she wants him to be. His nihilism is hard to shake, but eventually she gets through to him. I will leave the plot there, for those who have never seen the film.

Q- Was my memory accurate?


Oh, this film is edgy all right. Feiffer’s satire of modern life in the ‘70’s still feels very current. Disaffection, cynicism, frustration with social services, random violence—what’s not 21st Century America about THAT? La plus ça change….

Elliott Gould was the driving force behind making the film, and he originally wanted Jean-Luc Godard to direct (!). One can only imagine how a Parisian would have handled these very New York characters and themes. Getting native New Yorker Alan Arkin to direct makes a hell of a lot more sense. Gould was coming off some spectacular successes with “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice”, and “M*A*S*H”, a couple of films that were so huge that they had societal repercussions. He was able to produce the film for about a million dollars, and kept some of the actors who had done the short run on Broadway with him to be in the film, if not in the same roles. I can’t overstate how funny the comedy is in the film; the family scenes in particular are side-splitting, and Arkin’s turn as the psychotic detective Lt. Practice, is a gem of over-the-top insanity. The film has 4 classic monologues: 1) Lew Jacobi doing Judge Stern’s hilarious son of an immigrant rant,

2) Lt. Practice’s paranoid freak-out, 3) Alfred Chamberlain’s tale of how he dismantled a government wog who was reading his mail, and 4) Donald Sutherland as the minister doing the worst ceremony in wedding history. One of my favorite moments happens when the happy couple and Patsy’s family begin to climb the “First Existentialist Church” steps and the church doors open with a huge donnybrook spilling out into the street. At this point you kind of figure things will not be going well for Alfred and Patsy’s nuptials.

Watching “Little Murders”, you can see how the Beatnik ethos transformed into the Hippie ethos. Feiffer was a standard bearer of the former, Gould of the latter. The combination of the two provided searing commentary on the hypocrisy of America in the ‘60’s and the nascent ‘70’s. For my generation, “Little Murders” hit the spot so expertly that it would take 3 decades until at last the Coen Brothers came along to rival that execution.


With the exception of “Little Murders”, Alan Arkin has never really directed a great film. His comic and acting chops are superb, of course. His Oscar turn in “Little Miss Sunshine”, his first big role in “The Russians Are Coming” and his amazing job as Freud in “The Seven Percent Solution” are all personal favorites. Arkin’s comic touch is just right for “Little Murders”; everything is over-the-top enough to be uncomfortable but hilarious, yet it never strays into outright slapstick. The great Gordon Willis did cinematography, and the visuals and sets are perfect ‘60’s kitsch.

There are a few moments of weirdness, like the much too lengthy walk in the park by Alfred near the end of the film, where he decides to change his photo subjects from dog poop to people. It has a place in the film symbolically, for sure, but it is way too slow, and there are some very strange encounters with random people, folks whom you have to wonder if they were owed a favor by Arkin, Gould or Feiffer. The scene is mollified by a lovely musical bed, provided by the Modern Jazz Quartet. Some of the scenes during the courtship at the Catskills, wherein Patsy tries to get Alfred to admit he’s having fun, are a little dated stylistically. I guess that’s bound to happen. After all, it’s hard to believe, but the film is 40 years old!


The leads are fine, and Marcia Rodd, who was a complete unknown at the time, does a great job at capturing the stridently positive Patsy. Gould is also quite good, and his monologue stands out as one of the highlights of his career.

These actors are completely overshadowed by the supporting cast, especially the absolutely brilliant job by Elizabeth Wilson as Patsy’s mother, Marge. We all remember Ms. Wilson as Benjamin Braddock’s mother in “The Graduate”, but that only gave a hint of her comic genius in playing the waspy, clueless mom. In “Little Murders” she steals the film with a portrayal that is one for the ages. Not quite as amazing, but still tremendous and hysterical are the rest of the Newquist clan; Vincent Gardenia as the father and Jon Korkes as the brother keep the laughs coming. Korkes physical humor is strong, and Gardenia’s delivery of his mantras, “Sonofabitch refuses to open” and “What’s your pleasure, young man” are so memorable that they became my mantras after seeing this movie the first time.

Veteran character actors John Randolph and Doris Roberts appear as Alfred’s parents, hopelessly intellectual and without a shred of humanity. Randolph played Patsy's father in the play version, but I can’t imagine the casting could be any better that it is in the film. I’ve already discussed how much fun Sutherland, Jacobi and Arkin are in their bits; they round out a supporting cast that is second to none.


It’s a classic, I tell you. If you have never seen this film, see it. If you hate it, I understand, but I am really sorry for you. Not only does it hold up after 40 years, but it gets better with age. The older I get, the more it speaks to my sense of the absurd, the hypocritical, the lunatic, but most of all to my sense of humor. If this writing exercise does nothing else for me, at least I can be happy in knowing that it got me to re-watch this movie.

1st Look- ★★★★ 2nd Look-★★★★

Monday, February 7, 2011

Who'll Stop The Rain- 1978 Dir. Karel Reisz

What I remember:

The truth is I remember very little about this film except that I liked it very much. In fact, I had read the novel upon which it was based, “Dog Soldiers” written by ex-Merry Prankster Robert Stone. As a big fan of the novel, I was extremely pleased to see a film adaptation.
Director Reisz had done three other films I was familiar with at the time, “Morgan”, “Isidora” and “The Gambler”. I was unaware of his history as part of the “Angry Young Man” film movement in England. I also remember Nick Nolte being his usual intense self, and thinking that an older Tuesday Weld was MUCH hotter than I remembered from her days as Thalia in “Dobie Gillis”.
My memory was that the adaptation actually equaled, if not surpassed the book, something that rarely happens. The movie was part of a mini-wave of Vietnam Veteran films, which in that year alone included the brilliant “Coming Home” and “The Deer Hunter”. I loved all three films, the other two being considered classics nowadays. Sadly, this one has been forgotten. Let’s see if it deserves its fate.


“In a world where elephants are pursued by flying men, people are going to naturally want to get high”. John Converse


A journalist (John Converse, played by Michael Moriarty) in late ‘60’s Vietnam has seen so much horror, and is so disillusioned, that he decides to cut a heroin deal. A merchant marine friend of his (Ray Hicks, portrayed ny Nick Nolte) will smuggle 2 kilos of pure heroin back to the States, where Converse’s wife will pay off the sailor. Upon arriving in California, the sailor immediately sees that some people are already wise to the deal, and he and the journalist’s wife need to go on the lam with the dope. The members of the other group are either the dirtiest cops ever, or just simply bad guys masquerading as cops. The chase takes our couple from Berkeley to L.A., then to New Mexico, where a stand-off ensues that includes all the major stateside players.

Q- Was my memory accurate?


Does war turn you into a person without morals? Does it make you lose your ability to reason? Does it take a normal civilized person and turn him into a killer? Does it make a man question authority?

Well, duh. I mean, haven’t you watched any war movies since “The Green Berets”? The main theme of “Who’ll Stop The..…..Lord, I am going to need a shortened name for this movie. That is WAY too much typing to reenter again and again. Let’s just go with WSTR. Thanks. The main theme of WSTR is disillusionment. It’s kind of the asexual version of “Boogie Nights”. By that, I mean that it is all about how happy hippies become badass drug dealers, all because they and their buddies saw some nightmare in the shit. I am not trying to belittle this theme, even if it sounds that way. When WSTR was made, this was a fairly fresh concept in the movies. It spread like napalm fire, and soon, every film about the Vietnam War was alike in message. Even films about other wars had some form of this “end of civilization” leitmotif (see my On Second Look entry on “Breaker Morant”).

What is it that separates WSTR from some of these other movies? Robert Stone helped with the screenplay adaptation of his own novel, and the dialogue is priceless from the outset. Many of the lines sound like something from a James M. Cain hard-boiled novel of the 40’s. There is a real toughness in the fabric of these characters. Even Margie Converse (as played by Tuesday Weld) goes from bookstore clerk to drug dealer on the run with a sudden streak of courage and edge that reminds one of Vivien Rutledge from “The Big Sleep”. Ray’s own disillusionment differs from John’s; he is disillusioned with incompetent authority, and it’s a very concrete focus. John is simply done with life. Michael Moriarty plays John as if he were already dead, just ghosting around all these events with no real concern for his friend, or his wife and child, or even his money. Ray’s problem with the guys in charge doesn’t stop him from having morals; he is loyal to the Converses to a fault. He doesn’t want them getting screwed over, and takes as much umbrage as if he were the victim. Ray is like the child who realizes that his parents aren’t always right, and decides that the only people he can trust are his friends. Why he trusts a friend who talked him into this life-threatening pursuit for a measly grand, I can’t explain.


Karel Reisz was rescued from the holocaust in one of the kindertransports of the ‘30’s, and virtually raised British. He did lose both parents to the camps. In England he became part of the new cinema of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s with filmmakers like Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson, making the classic “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” starring Albert Finney. Whether a man of this background can have insight into the beat/hippie movement of ‘60’s America is moot. Robert Stone’s imprimatur is all over this picture, and I am sure he was an integral part of the filming. Much of the style is reminiscent of ‘70’s made for TV films. There’s somebody watching our hero from a distance…quick! Zoom in from behind our hero to see the guy up in the hills behind a bush. All we need is some blaring trumpets and a fuzzy guitar. Flashbacks to Converse’s trauma in Nam are clumsily handled and too brief to have impact. Hicks apparently travels on a ship with no crew or other passengers from Vietnam to Oakland.

Reisz is able to generate a lot of tension, however, and some scenes are quite memorable, particularly the final sequence and the standoff. What really makes the movie click is the great characters and dialogue. There are more than a few Tarantino type exchanges, which gives the script a very contemporary feel.


Remember how I said Tuesday Weld was hot in this? Sorry, but this film has about as much sexuality as an episode of “Lassie”. She is neither hot, nor alluring. I have no clue where I got that notion. Nolte exposes more skin in 5 minutes of this movie than Weld does in the entire film. She spends most of her time doing her best Mia Farrow, which is actually quite appropriate for the role. If you want to see a hot, older Weld, check out her masochistic sexpot in “Once Upon a Time in America”. There is one scene in WSTR where she goes from strung out to high on heroin that is one of the most impressive bits of acting you’ll ever see. I mean, she physically changes; it is quite remarkable to watch. Nolte, who ironically 1st appears playing football--his next role will be as a wide receiver in the superb “North Dallas 40”—is a force to be reckoned with. His character was loosely based on beat writer Neal Cassady. He does not come across as an intellectual in any way, but that’s fine. We get the idea that he is a man-child, a free spirit. When they reach a place in the New Mexico mountains that is clearly based on Ken Kesey’s LSD commune, he bubbles over with the memories of the good times, recreational drugs and extended adolescence of the now abandoned retreat.

The bad guys are also quite unusual for the period. Richard Mazur (veteran character actor, known for “The Thing” and “Risky Business”) and Ray Sharkey (star of “Willie and Phil”, Mazursky’s awful take on “Jules and Jim”) play thugs who would have been just as at home in “Home Alone”. Mazur’s character is obviously Jewish, Sharkey’s is Italian. The two torture Converse, argue with each other and generally bumble about in a startling combination of terror and comedy. Anthony Zerbe, veteran TV and film bad guy, is the head of the fed/not fed group. His performance is pretty much one-note. There is also a great turn by Charles Haid (Renko from TV’s “Hill St. Blues”) as a Hollywood drug dealer, done with just the right amount of sinister smarminess. I’ve already discussed Michael Moriraty’s take on John Converse, it is a thankless role, but he pulls it off well.


I’m not going to say that WSTR holds up, because there are ways in which it’s dated style and misused soundtrack really do not. Was it so important to use Creedence that they even renamed the film for one of their songs? Nowadays, the film would seem more relevant had they just kept with “Dog Soldiers” as the title, and used music by Hendrix or The Grateful Dead, music that represents that period better to our perspective in the 21st Century. The film still has a lot of power, and one must remember that it was part of a ground-breaking wave of post-war Vietnam themed movies. It should be watched for that, and it should be treasured for it’s brilliantly acerbic and humorous dialogue.

1st Look-★★★1/2 2nd Look-★★★1/2

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

"Ministry of Fear"- 1944 Dir. Fritz Lang

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