Monday, February 07, 2011

Tonight's Movie: Ministry of Fear (1944)

This seems to be the week for watching Fritz Lang's 1944 nightmares -- last weekend was THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW, starring Edward G. Robinson, and tonight was Ray Milland in MINISTRY OF FEAR.

MINISTRY OF FEAR, based on a Graham Greene novel, is a rather remarkable movie, and it's really quite amazing that it's a relatively little-known film. It's a terrific World War II spy thriller very reminiscent of bits of several Hitchcock films, including THE 39 STEPS (1935), THE LADY VANISHES (1938), FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (1940), SABOTEUR (1942), and NOTORIOUS (1946).

Indeed, if this film had the Hitchcock name stamped on it I'm sure I would have heard of it many years ago, as it's an extremely suspenseful movie filled with marvelous set pieces and characters. Yet for some reason it's been overlooked...and since it's a Paramount film, it's also a difficult title to find. Although it had a VHS release over a dozen years ago, the only DVD version is a Region 2 DVD released in Europe. Fortunately Turner Classic Movies is showing the film several times this year, but this is a movie which should be much more widely seen and studied.

The movie begins as Stephen Neale is released from a two-year confinement in a mental asylum. He has a few moments of peaceful bliss before being plunged into an Alice in Wonderland nightmare involving a cake, a palm reader, a blind man, and... Meanwhile the Nazi planes rage overhead, as it's the height of the Blitz.

Initially the film's plot is so nightmarishly crazy one wonders if it all makes sense. But it definitely does.

Milland's only opportunity to work with Hitchcock was when he played the villain in DIAL M FOR MURDER (1954) a decade later. MINISTRY OF FEAR gives one a sense of what he would have been like as an on-the-run Hitchcockian hero. He handles a difficult role with ease, and it's easy to see why Carla (Marjorie Reynolds), an Austrian refugee, falls for him instantly despite his rather dubious background and the crazy story he shares.

Reynolds, best known as the leading lady of HOLIDAY INN (1942) or for the '50s series THE LIFE OF RILEY, is quite charming as an Austrian who may be the one person who can help Neale, though from time to time her accent seemed to fade. The film's notable perormances include Percy Waram as a mysterious man following Neale; Hillary Brooke as a spiritualist; and Dan Duryea, who was also in Lang's THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW, as...well...perhaps the less said there, the better.

There's a sequence on a train that rivals the best of Hitchcock. Lang, of course, was quite the superb director in his own right, but in this case it's difficult not to make the comparisons. There are so many notable moments and sets in this film, including a death in a tailor shop; a mysteriously empty apartment and a suitcase full of books; a doorbell built into what looks like Picasso artwork; a striking government office set near the movie's end; and the climactic shootout on a London rooftop.

The movie does a nice job of capturing London, despite being filmed on the backlot, with a recreation of a London Underground Tube shelter and effective shots of rainy shops and rooftops.

The supporting cast includes Alan Napier, Erskine Sanford, Mary Field, Byron Foulger, and Lester Matthews. The superb black and white photography was by Henry Sharp. The film runs 86 minutes.

This movie is shown from time to time on TCM. The trailer is here, but be forewarned it's quite plot spoilerish!

MINISTRY OF FEAR is a most enjoyable film which I look forward to watching again in the future. Highly recommended.

March 2013 Update: MINISTRY OF FEAR is coming out on DVD from the Criterion Collection this month!

2014 Update: MINISTRY OF FEAR is now also available in the TCM Vault Collection set Dark Crimes - Film Noir Thrillers, Volume 2.


Blogger Colin said...

There's something curious about the perception of Lang, isn't there? On the one hand, he's celebrated as the director of M and Metropolis yet his American films are always treated with a kind of grudging respect at best. I think a lot of this comes down to the fact that a few influential critics planted the seed suggesting that Lang's move stateside resulted in a lessening in the quality of his output.
Personally, I've never subscribed to this theory but it does seem to have caused his US movies to get sidelined somewhat on home video. The last few years has seen more of his titles become available but they appear to sneak out.
Of course pretty much all of his work can be found if you scour around the regions. Ministry of Fear is a deliciously weird movie with a storming opening - good to see you highlight it. I featured it myself on the blog a couple of years ago and haven't had a chance to rewatch it since; I'll have to try and put that right.


1:51 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Colin! I was glad to know you'd written about the movie and looked it up at your site. (Here it is for anyone else who would enjoy reading advised there's more about the plot than I disclosed.) I especially liked your point about the sets adding to the feeling of unreality...those scenes on the moor were really something. It was obviously a set, yet it was quite beautiful and fit the movie perfectly, as you noted.

Best wishes,

2:31 PM  

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