Saturday, August 27, 2011

#53 - Ministry of Fear

BACK-STORY: “Ministry of Fear” is a classic film noir by the acclaimed Fritz Lang. It was based on the novel of Graham Greene which is noirier than the screenplay. The movie was released in 1944 and is black and white. It is partly Lang’s reaction to Nazis dominance of Europe. Lang, a German, had been offered a job in the Ministry of Propaganda by Josef Goebbels and immediately fled from Germany.

OPENING: A clock ticks on a wall (Lang liked clocks). Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) is waiting for release from Lembridge Asylum. His two year sentence for the mercy killing of his terminally ill wife is up and he is a free man.

SUMMARY: Neale stops at a charity festival hosted by the Mothers of Free Nations. He is urged to see the fortune teller. She tells him the correct weight of the cake in the cake-weight guessing contest. He wins the cake, but soon after a man arrives and accosts the fortune teller and insists the cake is his. Neale hasn’t had a good cake in two years so he leaves with it.

     Neale boards a train and a blind man sits in his berth. Or is he blind? He steals the cake! I mean literally, he purloins the cake. Neale chases him through the moor and he is eaten by a giant hound. Whoops, wrong movie. He is hit by a bomb and the cake does not fare well either.

     Neale continues on to London where he visits an eccentric private eye named Rennit to assist him in solving the puzzle of the cake. Neale goes to the offices of the Mothers of Free Nations with Rennit shadowing him, just in case. He meets Willi (Carl Esmond) and his sister Carla (Marjorie Reynolds) who appear to be nice people. He tells his story and Willi agrees to take him to the fortune-teller’s home.

Milland and Reynolds being stabbed by a shadow

     The fortune-teller is not the same woman that was at the fair. She is a statuesque Mrs. Bellain. He is invited to sit in on a séance. The cake claimant, a man named Cost (Dan Duryea), is in the circle. A spirit accuses Neale of murder, the lights go out, a shot rings out, Cost is dead, Neale is standing with the murder weapon, he escapes. Cool scene, but not exactly ground-breaking.

     Rennit’s office has been ransacked and Neale is being tailed. He hooks up with Carla and they take refuge in the subway during a bombing raid. This gives them the time to fall in love and also the time for Neale to tell us the true story of his wife’s death. He was planning to euthanize her, but she actually took her own life. Carla takes him to a bookstore which will be a safehouse. Neale and Carla figure out the charity is a front for Nazi spies!

     The bookseller asks them to deliver a suitcase of books as long as they are going out. Unfortunately, the case is a bomb which nearly eliminates the couple. Neale awakens in the custody of Scotland Yard. An agent named Prentice is on the case. It seems someone has murdered Rennit. Neale (who is just out of an asylum) tells him an insane story about a cake. Prentice swallows it (the story, not the cake) and agrees to take Neale to the bomb site. There is a really fake bomb crater at the site, but no cake until Neale finds it in a bird’s nest. It turns out the cake contained some microfilm that reveals convoy embarkation plans and minefields. It is deduced that a tailor named Travers had access to super secret War Ministry information. It’s always the tailor!

     When Prentice and Neale go to the tailor’s shop it turns out that Travers and Cost are the same guy. When he is confronted, he runs away and commits suicide (a very un-Duryea thing to do, in my opinion). Neale escapes and goes to see Carla who he now suspects as a spy. However, she is innocent, but Willi is not. Willi pulls a gun, but Carla throws a candle stick which disarms him. Two stunt men fight. Willi flees but Carla shots him through the door. Nice touch.

CLOSING: Neale and Carla are chased by the Nazi spy ring to the roof-top. A gun battle ensues which ends when Prentice appears and takes out the Nazis. The brief concluding scene has Neale and Carla on the way to their wedding. Neale insists the ceremony be cakeless. Ha ha!


Acting – 7

Action – 5

Accuracy – not applicable

Realism – 5

Plot - 5

Overall - 5

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?  Yes. Especially if they are into film noir or wacky mysteries. Neale and Carla make a nice couple. The villains are tame. The violence is 1940s style. No blood.

ACCURACY: The movie is not based on a true story, so accuracy is not an issue. I can comment on its accuracy in depicting the novel. The movie differs from the book in significant ways. The hero in the book is named Arthur Rowe. I have no idea why his name was changed. In the novel, he does poison his wife to put her out of her misery, but he is partially motivated with the desire to be free of her. Hence, the novel’s character is torn by guilt feelings. Clara is not as innocent in the book. In fact, the book goes beyond the exposure of the spy ring to show that Arthur and Clara are not exactly living happily ever after. In fact they are constantly watching over their shoulders. There is no gun battle at the end of the book and Willi commits suicide. It appears to me that being more faithful to the book would have made the movie better and more film noirish. It looks like Lang went with a tamer, Hollywoodized crowd-pleaser.

CRITIQUE: Sadly, “Ministry of Fear” is nothing special. It is not a great war movie and it is not a even great film noir. The acting is satisfactory, but not up to the great film noir classics. Arguably the most interesting actor (Dan Duryea) is underused. Marjorie Reynolds is a light weight. She is good looking, however. The music is typical film noir dark. The cinematography is also on the dark side, but not noteworthy.

     The plot has holes and bizarre aspects, but you expect that from film noir. There are several why? moments. Like why did the original fortune teller give him the incorrect weight of the cake and then give him the correct weight when Cost was supposed to win the cake? For that matter, why didn’t they just slip Cost the cake to begin with? Why did the microfilm have to be in a cake? You could hide it in the palm of your hand and slip it to Cost easily. Why send Neale and Clara to deliver a suitcase bomb when they could have been killed so much more simply? Last, but not least, what kind of security does the British War Ministry have when a tailor can steal super secret documents?

     It is a fun movie and entertaining. There is some suspense as to whether Carla is a spy. Unfortunately, everyone else is obvious. For instance, the blind man and Cost (did Duryea ever play a good guy?) It is easy to empathize with Neale. Milland does a good job making him likable, but hardly an action hero.

CONCLUSION: Once again I eagerly anticipated a highly ranked war movie only to find that it is a war movie only in the loosest definition of war movie. This is another head-scratcher. It is clearly film noir and not even a great one. Even Fritz Lang was not happy with it. Here is my final comment to the “experts” on the Military History magazine panel. Casablanca is #65 and “Ministry of Fear” is #53. WTF


  1. When I saw the poster I thought that you must be joking. This looks so noir. I'm disappointed to hear that it isn't even a good noir movie. I like them usually. But I really agree with your last sentence. Casablanca comes later? I even think from what you write that the Hitchcock movies were better.
    I do get it less and less (the list)...

  2. the war movie buffAugust 28, 2011 at 5:41 PM

    I had not really caught that, but you are right. No way does that poster indicate it's a war movie! Of the Hitchcock movies, I would say Foreign Correspondent is equally non-war and Notorious is actually less.


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