For reasons I have never quite understood Fritz Lang’s Ministry of Fear (1944) has always had a tendency to be overlooked by the director’s admirers. This may have something to do with the fact that — unlike most of Lang’s American movies — it’s a great deal of fun. (It’s also a lot more fun than the Graham Greene novel on which it’s based.) There is a sort of tradition involving playing down noirish films — and the look is pretty firmly film noir — that are less than grim. The funny thing is that Ministry of Fear is much more like one of Lang’s German silents — especially his 1928 Spies (Spione) — than any of his other American movies. This is unabashed melodrama — despite the noir look — of the kind on which Lang thrived.
Its plot — which in basic terms does follow the source novel — will probably feel more like a Hitchcock innocent-man-on-the-run picture to those not familiar with Lang’s German movies. Even at their grimmest, Lang’s German films are filled with the kind of melodrama we often associate with the serial film — labyrinthian plots, mysterious characters, elaborate underworld networks, last minute escapes, booby traps, etc. Oh, sure, it’s all updated here with the underworld being given over to an improbably huge network of spies — all under the control of an of course rabid anti-Nazi, who is anything but. (The shadow of Hitchcock’s 1940 thriller Foreign Correspondent doesn’t end there.) Believable? Probably not, but Lang — who once remarked that in today’s world you aren’t paranoid, you are being persecuted — may have thought otherwise. In any case, it’s a lot of exciting fun.
Ray Milland — then riding a wave of popularity at Paramount — stars as Stephen Neale, a man just out of a stint in an asylum for the mercy killing of his wife. (Since this is a Post-code movie, it’s made clear that he didn’t actually do this.) While waiting for his train to London, he kills time at a church fete where accidentally says the right phrase to a fortune teller — said phrase being the right weight to win a cake. The cake, as it turns out contains something the spies want (surely, there was an easier way to handle this!), which lands Neale in deep trouble that quickly surfaces when he’s attacked by the typical Lang character of a bogus blind man (Eustace Wyatt) on the train. Overpowering Neale and making off with the cake when the train is stopped by a convenient bombing raid, the blind man doesn’t get far before he — and the all-important cake — are blown to bits by a German bomb.
This event lands Neale into the nest of spies when he tries to investigate what happened. The details of all this should be left to the film itself in all its convoluted glory — but it includes a seance where he’s framed for killing a man, a real charge of murder for the murder of a seedy private detective (Erskine Sanford) he’d hired, and an organization called Mothers of the Free World. As might be imagined, the organization (which was behind the church fete) is not what it seems, but it does provide Neale with a romantic interest in the form of Carla Hilfe (Marjorie Reynolds trying parlay her role in 1942’s Holiday Inn into a career that never really happened). It’s all fast-paced thrills and fun — the kind of film that defies you not to enjoy it. And I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t.
The Asheville Film Society will screen Ministry of Fear Tuesday, Nov. 18, at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.