A Hitchcock film that Hitchcock didn’t make, Ministry of Fear has the innocent man on the run, the dangerous/vulnerable blonde and a shadowy organisation pulling the levers in the background. Fritz Lang directed it, in mid 1943, but it took until mid 1944 before it was shown in cinemas (and even then it only happened piecemeal). Considering it’s about Nazis, a dangerous conspiracy and life during wartime, that’s a long time for a film to be sitting on the shelf.
Fritz Lang didn’t like it, nor did Graham Greene, who wrote the book it was based on, but Lang was forced to work with the adaptation written by Seton Miller, who was the film’s producer and not amenable to textual alteration by Lang or anyone else.
It’s worth watching the film with that in mind and in particular the way that Lang initially tries to compensate for the screenplay’s shortcomings with extreme Lang-ism – camera movements, gothic lighting – until around the halfway point he hits the soggiest section of Miller’s screenplay and just gives up. From here to (eternity?) the end he reverts to competent, straightforward film-making, a contractual obligation satisfied and nothing more.
It’s a pity, because the first half of the film is powerful, and the opening particularly so. Stephen Neale (Ray Milland), fresh out of an asylum for (we later learn) the mercy killing of his terminally ill wife, pops in to a summer fete while waiting for a train to take him to London. There, in one of the sideshows he unwittingly delivers a code phrase to a spy posing as a clairvoyant and winds up in possession of the cake from the “guess the weight of the cake” stall. It’s obviously more than just a cake, judging by the number of people who are soon on Neale’s tail.
From here, in The 39 Steps style, it’s Neale trying to stay one step ahead of the Nazi spies who want what was in the cake (microfilm, it turns out) and the police, who want to know why wherever Neale goes, death seems to be not far behind.
Good. All good this bit of it, and it stays good once Neale arrives in Blitz-stricken London (Hollywood studio sets) and gets involved with one potentially dodgy new acquaintance after another – like the Austrian brother and sister Willi and Carla Hilfe, who run an organisation called the Mothers of the Free Nations, and a woman (Hillary Brooke) who claims to be the clairvoyant Neale saw at the fete, but in her silver sheath of a dress and with her sex-on-stilts demeanour she couldn’t be further away from the frumpy matron whose palm he earlier crossed with silver.
There is a fabulous séance, held by this clairvoyant, during which Lang and his DP Henry Sharp go to town on the exotic lighting, along the way introducing Dan Duryea in the first of two shadowy roles.
After the séance the film goes slack, Lang loses interest and Neale is increasingly replaced as the “detective” solving the mystery by a real detective, Inspector Prentice (Percy Waram).
Rewind a bit: that “mercy killing” of the wife. What is that all about? What function does it serve in the story? None at all and is presumably (I’ve not read the book) part of a plot strand there so Greene could examine his hero’s hold on morality and to allow a discussion of guilt, cosmic or otherwise.
Ray Milland, simultaneously over- and under-acting as usual, is the dependable meat and potatoes Stephen Neale, Marjorie Reynolds the glamorous Hitchcockian blonde, Carl Esmond her sibilant brother. Reynolds is pretty good, though the Carla/Willi sections of the flm are devoid of real buzz, and the Hitchcock-style budding romance between Stephen and Carla is even less gripping. Duryea, in his mid 30s but looking about 20, somehow punches through the cardboard in a mean sonofabitch role that’s a harbinger of a bigger career to come.
Film noir is how Ministry of Fear is categorised. “Yes… but” is the answer to that. Up to the halfway point, it’s noir all the way, in look and tone, with the decent if unconventional hero walking the mean streets. But after that pivotal séance the cops turn up, and ambiguity is dispelled along with the shadowy noir lighting. It even ends on a joke, which isn’t noir at all. Look how Lang shoots it – so bright it’s a rebuke.
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© Steve Morrissey 2022