Imbued with a genuine sense of dread, and, some finely wrought vignettes of timely and marvelous suspense, Fritz Lang’s Ministry of Fear (1944) is just one of those movies you wish could be done over again for the sake of fidelity to its source material. Grahame Greene’s novel; about a pair of conflicted souls perpetually tormented and angst-ridden by dark secrets rising to the surface from their respective pasts was distilled in Seton I. Miller’s screenplay to accommodate the conventions of a traditional film noir. Also, to satisfy the Production Code of Ethics that absolutely forbade even the whiff of a truly dishonest man escaping his own fate. In Greene’s novel our protagonist (Arthur Rowe/Stephen Neale in the movie) does, in fact, murder his wife by dropping poison into her drink.
Yes, the woman is an invalid and in constant pain. But Greene’s prose suggests Rowe/Neale has killed her more to relieve his own insufferable tolerance than to alleviate her suffering. The novel clearly considers Rowe a killer whose conscience has begun to gnaw away at him. But the movie apologetically labels Neale’s murder a mercy killing – Neale released from an asylum after serving two years of internment behind its walls. Even with the blunting of this back story the movie still works, just not on the same level or understanding as Greene had hoped. After Ministry of Fear had its premiere Lang approached Greene at a cocktail party with a contrite apology for mangling his masterpiece. Indeed, Greene always considered Ministry of Fear one of the worst filmic adaptations of his literary prowess. And yet, Lang manages many moments of exemplary trepidation throughout its scant 86 minutes of dumb show.
True enough, the brevity of Seton’s rewrite doesn’t allow for the exploration of Stephen Neale’s profoundly tormented compunction – except for a brief inference during a séance. Neither does it particularly invest in the pang of our ‘hero’s’ love interest, Carla Hilfe, who fears she will eventually be found out as a Nazi sympathizer. No, Seton’s reconstitution of Greene’s inner machinations jettisons all but the most convivial of character traits; giving wartime audiences the stock hero with uncanny and intuitive powers of deduction (played by the congenial and infrequently befuddled Ray Milland) and his gal pal on the side (herein fractured by Marjorie Reynolds, who woefully stumbles through her affected faux-German accent). It might have all fallen to pieces a lot sooner, if not for Lang’s superb handling of the chase sequences and Henry Sharps’ exemplar of noir-lit cinematography that remains disconcerting and very creepy.
The backdrop of London during the Blitz also adds a nice touch; heightening the element of danger to a whole other level. Undeniably, Ministry of Fear played better in the immediacy of the moment – 1944 – but in retrospect, the war-time setting proves a moody time capsule that helps elevate the overall anxiety of the piece. And Milland, generally a rather bland leading man, herein creates a sense of genuine unease, mostly through casual glances with occasionally darting eyes. He really was an underrated actor; not quite James Stewart and hardly Gary Cooper, and yet, in retrospect, falling somewhere between the iconography of these two galvanized stars. Also in hindsight, in Ministry of Fear we can begin to see flashes of the Ray Milland who will emerge more unctuous and sinister in Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (1954).
At times, Fritz Lang’s direction veers dangerously close to becoming episodic, the pieces being fitted into his grander jigsaw puzzle somehow more spellbinding than the whole. And the ending, happily obtuse and completely out of character with the rest of the movie, decidedly does not work on any level – even to satisfy the conventional Hollywood ‘feel good’. But Lang is also an expert constructionist and proves it with his tenuous balancing act; keeping up the pace of the story – mostly at a breakneck speed – the occasional hiccup and pause to accommodate the prerequisite and burgeoning romance between Milland’s milquetoast 'every man' and Reynolds’ doe-eyed Austrian valentine not enough to submarine the enterprise or bring its narrative to a screeching halt. Hence, Ministry of Fear fumbles around, but trundles out its wares with great gusto, its cloak and dagger nonsense enough to convince most anyone it’s a good show – if, a decidedly inaccurate and convoluted one.
Our story is set in the thick of the war, at the Lembridge country asylum where we discover a pensive Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) counting down the moments to his release. Although it is as yet unclear how Neale came to be committed, Dr. Norton (Lester Matthews) encourages him to have no more dealings with the police, and Neale confides that he intends to go to London, despite the blitz, to be surrounded by people; to listen and partake in their laughter and conversations. It all sounds idyllic and good. That is, until Neale – while waiting for his train to arrive – decides to partake in a village fête hosted by the Mothers of Free Nations; a charitable organization raising money for the Allied war effort.
One of the kiosks is engaged in a contest to guess the weight of a rather lavishly decorated cake; Neale partaking in the game of chance for a shilling before being encouraged to attend the fortune teller’s booth and have his palm read. Neale complies, but is distracted when the reader, Mrs. Bellane (Aminta Dyne) refuses to tell him his future. Instead, she misinterprets his statement as a cryptic code and tells him to take another guess at the cake, giving him its exact weight of 4 lbs. 15 ½ ounces to ensure he wins it. Neale does just that and is awarded the prize. But only a moment later a mysterious car draws near, a man (Dan Duryea) hurrying from it into the fortune teller’s tent. The lady purchaser (Connie Leon) scurries toward Neale, insisting that she misread his weight and that the cake belongs to the newly arrived man. But Neale refuses to give up his prize, offering the purchaser a shilling to return to the man for his troubles before departing to the train depot.
Lang’s staging of the next few sequences exhibit the hallmarks of a master visual storyteller; Neale boarding a private car, shades drawn and lights dimmed to conceal it from Nazi bombers. Just as Neale is about to settle in he is confronted by a blast of innocuous steam and then a seemingly harmless blind man (Eustace Wyatt) who seems to materialize out of nowhere to inquiry if there is space aboard. Relieved, and frankly comforted by the thought of having company on his long trip to London, Neale offers the blind man a slice of cake. However, as Neale turns his back to retrieve the cake from its overhead rack Lang’s direction reveals to the audience that the man is actually faking his blindness.
The train pulls out of the station. Neale hands the man a slice of cake, but observes with mounting suspicion as he proceeds to crumble it between his fingertips before swallowing the few remaining crumbs. Just then the Luftwaffe attack, the sound of their shells dropping all around causing Neale to go over to the window and observe as a nearby munitions factory is leveled. The ‘blind’ man springs into action, using his cane to momentarily knock Neale unconscious and abscond with the rest of the cake.
Stirring from the blunt force trauma Neale makes chase across the marshy fields, the man shooting at him from the relative safety of an abandoned farm house that is bombed to smithereens as Neale looks on. Retrieving the man’s revolver from the rubble Neale hurries away; the screen fading to black. This is Lang’s first ‘clumsy’ break in the narrative; one that begins to ever-increasingly unhinge his tight storytelling and threaten to rob the movie of its cohesiveness. We find Neale wandering the battle-fatigued streets of London, arriving at the offices of a befuddled private investigator, George Rennit (Erskine Sanford, utterly wasted in a throw away part). Neale hires Rennit to shadow him as he investigates the Mothers of Free Nations; arriving at their offices a short while later with Rennit waiting outside. Neale is led into their inner chamber by the organization’s affable social secretary, Mrs. Merrick (Helena Grant) and introduced to the presiding co-chairs, brother and sister, Willi (Carl Esmond) and Carla Hilfe (Marjorie Reynolds); refugees from Nazi-occupied Austria. After some polite small talk, Neale confesses that he would like the address of Mrs. Bellane. He lies to the Hilfes about ‘getting on famously’ with Bellane, Willi slightly apprehensive about divulging the particulars of their volunteers but agreeing to accompany Neale to Mrs. Bellane’s London home only after Neale comes clean and relays his harrowing train experience from the night before.
However, when Willi and Neale arrive at Mrs. Bellane’s home they find a much different woman (the ever seductive and slinky Hillary Brooke) passing herself off as the lady of the house. Encouraged to partake in a séance with other invited guests, a rogue’s gallery of red herrings including Dr. J.M. Forrester (Alan Napier) and Martha Penteel (Mary Field), the moment is further complicated by the sudden and unexpected arrival of Mr. Cost (Dan Duryea); the very same man who attempted to buy back the cake in Lembridge. Unhappy chance for Neale that as the lights dim and Mrs. Bellane falls into her trance she conjures visions and sounds of Neale poisoning his wife.
Neale panics and breaks the circle. A gun shot fired moments later in the dark kills Cost. As the house lights come up the group of frightened participants retreat to an adjacent parlor, Mrs. Bellane convinced that Neale has murdered Cost and hurrying to telephone the police. Left alone with Willi, Neale pleads that he is not responsible for the murder. Willi is sympathetic but decides that the only way he can allow Neale his escape is if Neale knocks him unconscious. And so, Neale strikes Willi in the jaw before making his daring escape through an open window. Again, Fritz Lang fades to black, the fade up on a London street hours later finding Neale back at Rennit’s office, newly ransacked and a mysterious man (Percy Waram) lurking just outside.
Assuming the worst, Neale telephones Carla; the pair meeting on a street corner. Air raid sirens force them into the underground along with many other nearby residents. Neale conceals his identity from the mystery man who, after a few pensive moments, boards one of the trains in the tube. Neale explains to Carla that he had plotted to euthanize his terminally ill wife; developed cold feet at the last possible moment but was then too late to stop her from swallowing the pills herself. For his complicity in her suicide he was sentenced to two years at Lembridge instead of prison; the court granting him clemency under exceptional circumstances.
Carla is empathetic. She elects to take Neale to Mr. Newland (Thomas Louden) – a friend who has helped conceal exiles and refugees for Carla before. Neale is given accommodations in an upstairs room of Newland’s bookshop. But Neale also spots a book prominently displayed in the shop written by Dr. Forrester on the psychology of Nazism. Carla confesses that in addition to serving as one of the Mothers of the Free Nation’s volunteers, Forrester also acts as a consultant for the Ministry of Home Security. Neale decides to confront Martha Penteel at her home. Instead, he discovers to his surprise that Mrs. Bellane is waiting for him. The two indulge in some double entendre. Mrs. Bellane openly flirts and Neale pretends to go along to draw information out of her. Instead, Penteel returns, recognizes Neale and screams in terror for the police. In the meantime, Carla confronts Willi after conducting her own investigation into the identities of various volunteers for the Mothers of the Free Nation. She tells Willi that the Nazis have infiltrated their charity and are, in fact, using it to smuggle state secrets back to Germany.
Given the severity of her claim Willi is sympathetic but non-committal. He asks Carla if her affections for Neale have clouded her judgment and she confesses that she has, in fact, fallen hopelessly in love with Neale. Returning to the bookshop, Carla tells Neale of her findings. The pair is asked by Mr. Newland to deliver a consignment of books in a suitcase to a Mr. Travers at a nearby hotel. However, upon arriving at the address Carla and Neale discover that the suite of rooms is not occupied. Neale decides to investigate the contents of the suitcase, inadvertently exposing a hidden bomb inside, but escaping imminent harm moments before it detonates.
Neale awakens hours later with the mysterious man he saw skulking outside of Rennit’s office now seated at his side, cleaning his finger nails with a switchblade. The man, so it turns out, is Inspector Prentice of Scotland Yard. Neale attempts to explain his fantastical story to Prentice, who doesn’t buy it for a moment, and furthermore reveals to Neale that Rennit is dead; murdered and his body dumped in a remote field. After some coaxing, Prentice agrees to accompany Neale with a few detectives to the site where ‘the blind man’ met his maker. Prentice is skeptical at best as his men sift through the debris, discovering the blind man’s shoe and torn jacket, then a piece belonging to the handle of the revolver Neale has in his possession. Finally, Neale discovers the remnants of the cake in the hollow of a tree, a small capsule of microfilm tucked deep within revealing the Allied strategic plans for their invasion of Europe. Prentice and Neale take their find to the Ministry of Defense, Neale confiding that Forrester is most likely the Nazi accomplice working in their midst.
Prentice and Neale trace Forrester to a tailor’s shop after linking Mr. Travers to the name of the suite where Neale and Carla were sent to deliver the books. While Prentice pretends to be interested in a suit of clothes, Neale discovers that Travers is none other than Cost, who never died at Mrs. Bellane’s home; the murder staged to frame Neale. Cost pretends not to recognize Neale, placing a rather cryptic telephone call to one of his clients, presumably about a suit. Realizing he cannot escape the police, Travers races into an adjoining office, locks himself in, and impales himself on a rather large pair of cloth-cutting sheers. It seems as though Prentice’s investigation has come to a dead end. But Neale recalls the telephone number of the client Travers called and dials it, only to have Carla answer on the other end.
Neale is distraught. Could he have been duped by Carla? Is she the spy they’ve been searching for? Slipping away, Neale arrives at the Hilfe’s apartment where he quickly realizes only Willi – not Carla – is the double agent. Willi’s suit contains another copy of the valuable microfilm sewn into its sleeve. The two men struggle for Willi’s gun. Neale knocks it loose from Willi’s grip and Carla finally puts a period to their fist fight by shooting her own brother dead. Moments later Forrester arrives with his henchmen to collect the microfilm, Neale hurrying Carla to the rooftops where gunfire is exchanged before Prentice arrives to shoot Forrester and his Nazi cohorts dead. In the final scene Neale and Carla are shown blissfully in love and driving into the country with the prospects of starting their lives over as man and wife.
Ministry of Fear is mind-boggling in all its flawed originality and even more fundamentally unsound storytelling. The off-camera homicide of Rennit baffles. It’s a decoy; one of too many keeping the audience off balance. Lang is the master of dark, moody touches. But he frequently stumbles in weaving the ‘cause and effect’ in Grahame Greene’s complex tapestry of narrative threads. Lang is at his very best when he invests in the perversity of espionage, elevating the paranoia to near frenzied heights; as in his mounting sense of dread during Neale’s confrontation with ‘the blind man’, or later, when the slinky Mrs. Bellane’s séance goes surreptitiously awry. These moments are unparalleled in all their cleverly staged fear-mongering; deliciously stylized and expertly carried off through the skillful combination of Henry Sharp’s cinematography and Archie Marshek’s editing. It all works with such sublime perfection that one sincerely wishes the rest of the movie had been given as much thought, care and attention to detail. Regrettably, Ministry of Fear is in constant flux between attaining a superior realism and imploding under its own mismanaged – and very badly mangled - story line.
In Greene’s novel Anna (not Carla) Hilfe is complicit in the Nazi spy ring but manages to keep her involvement a secret from Neale. She does not shoot Willi dead and there is no clichéd rooftop shootout and showdown between Prentice and the Nazis. Willi commits suicide in a railway station lavatory after realizing there is no escape. The penultimate retreat of the lovers is hardly blissful; with the novel’s Rowe (Neale in the movie, remember?) knowing he is a murderer, and anxious Anna will learn the truth, while Anna/Carla is destined to forever be looking over her shoulder as a Nazi sympathizer. None of these machinations are explored in Lang’s movie; the result being Ministry of Fear lacks Greene’s centralized paranoia to propel the narrative to its inevitable conclusion. What we have in its place is a traditional film noir in a war-time setting. Again, Ministry of Fear works – though only on a superficial level; the suspense apropos, the danger constantly being diffused and subverted to accommodate the Production Code.
Neale can’t be a murderer allowed to get off with a mere two years, time served. Carla cannot set aside her Nazi affiliations for the sake of true love. And so we have Ray Milland and Marjorie Reynolds; a pair of well-meaning, lighthearted, silly little fops – perfectly matched, yet rather simplistically designed to fall in love amidst a perilous string of events unfolding around them; forcing their reactions and decisions. Yet, their motivations are weak at best; particularly Carla’s. She is a devoted sister and champion crusader for the Allied forces who doesn’t even realize her own brother is a card-carrying member of the Nazi party?!?! Shooting Willi dead seems to confirm Carla’s loyalties. Yet, could she really have been so stupid not to see through Willi’s not terribly clever set up of smuggling state secrets in baked goods?
After all, the elaborate premise that kicks off the story - microfilm buried inside a decorative cake on auction at a county fair, but handed over to an innocent man - is so absurd on its own. Why not simply smuggle the small role of film in a coat pocket, pen set or some other innocuous household item and/or utensil that draws less attention to it? At some point, one has to simply run with the old Hitchcock adage that “it’s only a movie” and forgive the obviousness of the story for the sake of having a good time. In point of fact, this is very easy to do with Ministry of Fear, our suspension of disbelief predicated on Lang’s riveting execution of several key sequences that periodically – and thankfully - distract from the story’s overall arc of ludicrousness.
The séance really doesn’t add up to anything else in the movie, but it remains one of the most intriguing sequences in Ministry of Fear; Hillary Brooke’s deliberately spooky performance as the femme fatale generating cheap thrills for several sustained moments. It’s a genuine pity Brooke only appears in two scenes because her appeal is considerable and electric. To a lesser extent, one can say the same about Carl Esmond’s genial Nazi and Dan Duryea’s despicably oleaginous man about town. Ministry of Fear clicks not so much because it makes any sense, but because its performers are wickedly adept at faking the good sense God gave a lemon; squeezing lemonade from the most rancid and fruitless of intrigues. Like another great noir, John Huston’s The Big Sleep, it is difficult - if not impossible - to dismiss Ministry of Fear as pure bunk – which it so obviously is – especially when those involved in its creation (particularly in front of the camera) believe so completely in what’s going on. Style over substance is a tricky business. It rarely works. But in the case of Ministry of Fear – the movie lingers to ask more perplexing questions than it answers. As such, it offers a great viewing in spite of itself.
Criterion’s Blu-ray is average at best. This is another 2k scan – at a time when 4k is the undisputed norm. The remastering effort is good if not great. The B&W elements exhibit accurately rendered grain. But several sequences appear to suffer from bumped contrast levels; flesh appearing ghost-like and minus the fine details that ought to have been revealed. Take our first introduction to the second Mrs. Bellane at the séance; Hillary Brooke’s face – except for eyes and lips, a mass of nondescript white. Universal are the custodians of the Paramount library, and their logo appears sandwiched between the Criterion logo and Paramount’s mountain that kicks off the real start of the movie. But Universal’s record remains spotty at best. Yes, restoration work has achieved a relatively smooth image with minimal age-related artifacts. But the gray scale looks rather drab in spots and excessively dark in others; blacks crushing, fine details completely disappearing into the general murkiness of the print.
Ministry of Fear doesn’t look terrible in hi-def – just unremarkable, and that is unforgivable. Movies in 1080p are supposed to wow us with their extraordinary clarity. This image is just middle of the road, occasionally soft, and almost always below expectations for visual perfection. The audio fare considerably better; Victor Young’s minimalist score sounding exquisite and dialogue very well placed, clean and minus the aversions of hiss and pop.
The other great sin herein is in the extras: Criterion’s lack of an audio commentary is, frankly, appalling! Criterion gives us a paper-thin (literally) foldout with a brief treatise and a scant 17 minutes of ho-hum by Fritz Lang historian and author, Joe McElhaney – and that’s it! Notice I’m not counting the badly worn theatrical trailer as an extra. At this late stage in the home video game I am a firm believer that un-restored trailers and/or Lux Radio broadcasts should not be counted as anything more than ‘essential inclusions’. Bottom line: Ministry of Fear is worthy of renewed viewing. It isn’t a perfect movie, and presented herein in a far-from-perfect transfer. But it’s almost as compelling for its misfires as for its attributes.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)