Cinema Monolith

Reviews of movies from my giant DVD tower, and more.

Ministry of Fear

Ministry of FearCinema Monolith: 8/10 This film is part of the Cinema Monolith collection!
IMDb: 7.2/10
Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide: *** out of 4

Released on October 16, 1944
Not rated
87 minutes

Directed by Fritz Lang

Written by Seton I. Miller, from the novel by Graham Greene

Cast: Ray Milland, Marjorie Reynolds, Dan Duryea, Carl Esmond, Hillary Brooke, Percy Waram, Alan Napier, Erskine Sanford, Mary Field, Harry Allen, Cyril Delevanti, Aminta Dyne, Byron Foulger, Thomas Louden

A man is released from a psychiatric institution outside of London, and while waiting at a railroad station to catch a train home, spots a village festival taking place nearby and decides to bide his time there. At a booth he spends a shilling to guess the weight of a cake, then he visits a fortune teller’s tent, where an offhand remark during a palm reading leads him back to the cake stand for another try at the weight, per the palmist’s specific instructions. This time, he wins the cake, but suddenly he’s drawn the ire of everyone around him, including the festival volunteers, the fortune teller, and most significantly, a mysterious gentleman in a bowler hat who’s just arrived to have his palm read.

And so began Ministry of Fear, a noir-like WWII espionage tale that took Ray Milland on a perplexing journey from one war-torn location to another, all to find out why blind men, booksellers, enemy agents, and Mothers of the Free Nations were all trying to kill him, seemingly over a nondescript box of pastries. With a plot filled to the brim with moments both breezy and dark, and featuring a helpless protagonist caught in a spiraling chain of dangerous circumstance, one can’t help but consider this offering ‘Hitchcockian’, a label so often attached to any suspense thriller that might reflect a not-so-serious storyline and tone.

Here, however, I’d say the classification was spot-on: I could easily believe Hitchcock had directed this, just as he’d directed his similarly-themed espionage films The 39 Steps and Saboteur. But of course it wasn’t Hitchcock who was behind the camera, but Fritz Lang, who I’m becoming more and more a fan of with each film of his I watch. His German Expressionism style, his smart visual touches, and his penchant for unexpected bursts of violence were all on display here, and the way his shots and framing were set up had you guessing right along with Milland as to what surprises—good or bad—were waiting around the next doorway or stairwell.

And that’s what I liked most about Milland’s character Neale: his confusion was your confusion, and you stumbled right along with him as he slowly but surely worked his way through the puzzle, trying to clear his name of a murder charge while dodging gunshots, bombings, policemen, and a mean-looking pair of scissors. Helping him along was a bubbly Marjorie Reynolds, acting as both an ally (well, maybe) and a love interest (perhaps), and whose character lived up to Lang’s trademark brutality by…well, let’s just say I hope my siblings don’t feel the same way about me if we were to find ourselves mixed up with a Nazi spy ring.

And now, the big question: Is Ministry of Fear to be considered film noir? The reference guides I own all say yes, while a few on-line sources I found think otherwise. Admittedly, it is a spy film set in London, lacking grit and a sense of dread, that in the end is more 13 Rue Madeleine than 99 River Street. But with a narrative that includes a man trapped by forces beyond his control, which drag him deeper and deeper into trouble, and a clearly-defined femme fatale, and cinematography that paints a noir landscape, and a solid 7 out of 10 score on my Ten Rules of Film Noir list, I’m going to lean more towards yes than no.

Either way, this was a well-done and entertaining film, thanks to outstanding direction and visuals from Lang, and a likable screen couple in Milland and Reynolds. And though the story as a whole may not hold up to hard scrutiny, and the upbeat wrap-up was pure hokum (and looked like it was tacked on by the studio), the individual set pieces more than made up for it, and make Ministry of Fear well worth a look. The Criterion disc, by the way, is a good one: the print has been cleaned up and looks excellent, an interview and a trailer are included as bonus features, and the price, compared to other Criterion releases, can’t be beat.  (8/10)

Ministry of Fear - photo 2gggggg

43 comments on “Ministry of Fear

  1. grandrapidsgirl
    11/15/15

    Great review!! Thanks Todd!!

  2. aaronwest
    11/15/15

    Thanks for participating! Funny, I also thought of this as “Hitchcockian,” but that’s a label that seems unfair, but I agree that it fits here. I’m also a fan of Lang’s Hollywood efforts. This is one of the highlights. You are also right that it walks the tightrope of being a noir. Hitchcock films didn’t quite fit that umbrella, but I agree that this is more noir than not.

    • Todd Benefiel
      11/15/15

      Thanks for the nice comments, Aaron, and thanks for letting me participate in the blogathon! I really like Lang’s Hollywood noirs, especially The Woman in the Window and The Big Heat, so I hope to track down some others to watch soon. Fury is also a good one worth checking out, if you’ve never seen it.

      • aaronwest
        11/15/15

        Woman in the Window was the first that came to mind. Scarlet Street too, and yes, Fury is a great early American flick. It proved he could work here, and he was quite prolific. Thanks again!

      • Todd Benefiel
        11/15/15

        Looking forward to checking out your post on The Apu Trilogy on Saturday!

      • aaronwest
        11/16/15

        Thanks! It is already written and will go up Wednesday.

      • Todd Benefiel
        11/16/15

        I’ll be there!

  3. Kristina
    11/16/15

    Thanks for this one, I like it a lot, and I’m a big Lang fan too. Really agree with the Hitchcock/noir comparisons, some great imagery in this and even a macguffin-like cake 🙂 Thanks for being part of this event.

    • Todd Benefiel
      11/16/15

      I think Lang’s imagery, shots, and framing were my favorite aspects of Ministry of Fear…I just loved the look, and what he put in the camera frame to help tell the story. There are a couple of his noirs I still need to see, as well as his Dr. Mabuse films, and I’m hoping they all have this same look and style. Thanks for checking out the review, Kristina, and thanks for allowing me to take part in your big event!

  4. I agree that this could be categorized as a film noir. Ray Milland is the perfect choice of this “perplexing” tale. (Great description!)

    Thanks for joining the blogathon and for bringing Fritz Lang along.

    • Todd Benefiel
      11/16/15

      Always a treat to be a part of your blogathons, Ruth, so a ‘thank you’ to you as well! For your next blogathon, if it’s possible to bring Ray or Fritz along, I will!

  5. billwhite1951
    11/16/15

    I’m pretty hard core on the aesthetics of noire the story as , and Ministry of Fear gets a 10/10 from me, while the similarly themed Hitchcock pictures would rate a 0/10. The only Hitchcock that I would classify as noir is The Wrong Man. You describe the storyline as not-so serious, but I think Milland’s character would disagree with you. He is in a pretty lethal mess.

    • Todd Benefiel
      11/16/15

      Hi Bill, and thanks for the visit! Along with The Wrong Man, I would classify one other Hitchcock film as film noir, and that would be Notorious, which may not contain obvious elements of noir, but for me had the same sort of feel to it.

      And yeah, quite the lethal mess for Ray, from his vantage point: beaten with a cane, shot at, bombed, chased, shot at again, seduced, suitcase bombed…a dangerous couple of days, to say the least! But from our vantage point, I would still consider his a ‘not-so-serious’ kind of threat, like what Cary Grant experienced in North by Northwest and Charade, or William Powell and Myrna Loy in the Thin Man films. Compared to Lang’s M or Fury, I’d definitely say Ministry of Fear is a lot less intense, and a bit more ‘fun’ to watch.

      • billwhite1951
        11/17/15

        I was thinking of North by Northwest as just the opposite. A movie that is possibly the most purely entertaining one I have ever seen. Grant whimsically spins through all those situations with nary the threat of a scratch. But I do agree that Fury and M are more intense than Ministry of Fear. As for Notorious, I don’t see any noir elements. For me, it is just a very slick spy picture. I like your writing, and enjoy thinking about movies from perspectives other than my own. I saw Ministry of Fear on a double bill with the more intense Hangmen Also Die, so was in a serious mood for it. I will have to watch it again with North by Northwest in mind. I might find it just as silly. For instance, the whole bit with the cake was pretty funny.

      • Todd Benefiel
        11/17/15

        North by Northwest was the movie that really got me interested in Hitchcock (who soon became my favorite director), and I’ve watched and enjoyed it so many times I’ve lost track. I even saw it on the big screen, back in the 1990s at the old-time Stanford Theater in Palo Alto, CA. I’ll have to check out Hangmen Also Die, which I’ve never seen…and just now discovered is available to watch on-line. Let me know your thoughts on Ministry of Fear if you watch it again…will you be posting anything for the Criterion Blogathon? If so, let me know, and I’ll check it out! And thanks for the nice compliment!

        And yeah, the cake bit…fun and funny, but odd: hiding microfilm-filled capsules in a dessert? Wasn’t there a better – and easier – way to get that film into Dan Duryea’s hands?

      • billwhite1951
        11/18/15

        I have All That Heaven Allows on the blogathon for today (Wednesday). North by Northwest was also my first Hitchcock. I saw it for the first time at the old Colonial Theatre in Seattle. That is a movie I can watch any time and it is always enjoyable. My favorite though is The Birds, which I saw when it opened at the Paramount in Seattle. I’ll watch Ministry of Fear again soon, but I doubt that I will be able to take it seriously now!

      • Todd Benefiel
        11/18/15

        I’ll check out your review tonight! I lived in Bellevue for a year, and though I don’t remember the Colonial, I did see the Paramount when we drove through downtown Seattle one afternoon; I seem to remember Heart playing there at some point that year, but I might be wrong. And yes, I love North by Northwest as well; it’s definitely in my Top 5 Hitchcocks, but I’d have to say my favorite is Rear Window, which I saw for the first time when it was re-released to theaters back in 1983.

        Oh great, I just ruined Ministry of Fear for you forever! 🙂

      • billwhite1951
        11/19/15

        You won’t ruin Ministry of Fear for me. You are giving me another way to look at it. The Colonial went out of business in the 1970’s, but I saw plenty of double features there for a quarter between 1959-62. Heart played the Paramount several times. They even filmed a concert there for a dvd. It is one of two old movie palaces in Seattle still in use, the other being the 5th Avenue.

      • Todd Benefiel
        11/20/15

        Double features for a quarter…COOL! I can remember my local theater having $1 shows on Mondays back in the early 1980s. And thanks for the verification on the Heart concerts…I’ll try to track down that DVD.

      • billwhite1951
        11/20/15

        I used to go to the World Theater in Hollywood in 1978 where they showed triple features for a dollar…and there was a theater in Santa Monica with a huge screen where a double feature was still only 50 cents in 78.

      • Todd Benefiel
        11/20/15

        Just checked out some photos of the World on-line…I guess it closed in 1986. One of the photos showed that the price of a triple-bill had jumped to $2.50 in 1982!

      • billwhite1951
        11/21/15

        2.50? At that price, I never would have been able to afford it!

  6. Keisha
    11/16/15

    Great review Todd! I agree with your thoughts on whether it constitutes as a noir or not… I think Ministry of Fear best fits into the argument of noir being a film style over genre, it really has some terrific cinematography.

    • Todd Benefiel
      11/16/15

      Thank you, Keisha! It’s funny you should mention the ‘style vs genre’ debate, because I’ve always considered noir a style over anything else, and this film definitely had style, and lots of it. I own a handful of Lang noirs that I hope to revisit soon, and I’ll be paying close attention to his direction and camerawork, to see how well it stacks up against his stellar work in Ministry of Fear. And I’m looking forward to reading your post on ‘Classic Film Noir in the Criterion Collection’!

      • Keisha
        11/16/15

        I think most of Lang’s noir films fit the genre argument, but this one doesn’t quite fit in the same sense. Now that you mention it, there’s a couple of his that I’d like to revisit; The Woman in the Window and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt are ones that I liked but wasn’t as crazy about.

        And thanks for the support! There’ll definitely be a mention of Ministry of Fear in there and what we’re talking about here. 🙂

      • Todd Benefiel
        11/16/15

        Yes, I agree: noir style, but in itself more an espionage thriller. And I own both of those Lang noirs you mentioned, so I think I’ll go with The Woman in the Window next.

  7. It is wonderful to think of Ministry of Fear as a “Criterion”. I first saw it on late night television, with commercials. We’re living the dream.

    • Todd Benefiel
      11/17/15

      I stopped watching movies with commercials on TV years ago…I couldn’t take it anymore! I own a few Criterion DVDs, but I would love to get my hands on a lot more…so many great movies to see uncut and cleaned up! Thanks for the visit, Patricia!

  8. Milland and Fritz Lang a good match up at this point in their careers. A solid film for both and yes Lang titles can grow on you. He had a style all his own. Nice contribution to the Criterion fest.

    • Todd Benefiel
      11/17/15

      Thanks, Mike! I really need to check out more Lang films…I found Hangmen Also Die on-line, so I’ll be watching that one soon. And speaking of Lang and Milland: I wonder how The Thing with Two Heads might’ve looked if Lang had directed it!

      • lol. That’s hilarious!!! Best comment of the week.

      • Todd Benefiel
        11/17/15

        Ha! I can just picture it: filmed in Expressionist black-and-white, with sudden bursts of brutality and lots of cake.

  9. Stu
    11/18/15

    Well this sounds really good. I’ve added it to my watchlist. The first couple of paragraphs made me think of North By Northwest, so it was interesting to see you mention another couple of Hitchcock films later on.

    • Todd Benefiel
      11/18/15

      You’ll have to tell me what you think when you watch it (or I’ll just force myself to visit your site and read about it myself). But seriously, I think you’ll have some fun with it…lots of neat things going on throughout. And your list of films I’ve recommended is really growing: Eegah, Outland, Ministry of Fear, From Justin to Kelly. I think you should have an all-night marathon and get caught up!

      • Stu
        11/18/15

        What is this Eegah you speak of? I’ve never heard of it m’lud.

      • Todd Benefiel
        11/19/15

        Oh, THAT makes sense…you question Eegah, but you have no problem with my From Justin to Kelly recommendation! I’ll be anxiously awaiting (sarcasm) your review of THAT masterpiece.

      • Stu
        11/19/15

        I’ve never heard of From Justin to Kelly. Is it an Orson Welles film?

      • Todd Benefiel
        11/19/15

        Yes, it’s a sequel to The Magnificent Ambersons.

  10. Kelly
    11/18/15

    One of the few Fritz Lang films I haven’t seen. Sounds like I’ll have to fix that.

    • Todd Benefiel
      11/18/15

      I think you’ll get a kick out of it, Kelly. And I hope I didn’t spoil too much of the story for you!

  11. Lindsey
    12/29/15

    Todd, apologies for falling behind on reading your blog. I just realized today that you were somehow removed from my RSS reader! Problem should be resolved now, and to make up for it I’ve nominated you for a Liebster Award: http://themotionpictures.net/2015/12/29/another-liebster-award-for-tmp/

    Happy (belated) holidays and (early) New Year to the Monolith!

    • Todd Benefiel
      12/29/15

      Thanks, Lindsey, and no need to apologize…I knew you’d swing by at some point! And apologies back…I’ve been VERY negligent in my blog reading and commenting, due to many factors, which I’ll explain in a post coming on the 31st! And THANK YOU for the Liebster! I’ll try to post my answers to your questions tomorrow!

      And happy holidays (last weekend) and a Happy New Year (this weekend) to you and TMP as well!

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