Reviews of movies from my giant DVD tower, and more.
Released on October 16, 1944
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)