Author Graham Greene wasn’t a fan of Fritz Lang’s adaptation of his novel Ministry of Fear. He considered the 1944 film noir as one of the “very bad” pictures based on his works and claimed that the director himself apologized for it. Indeed, it does seem that Ministry of Fear features a somewhat restrained Lang.
But a “restrained” Lang still constructs a captivating web, with Seton I. Miller’s screenplay weaving a tale that isn’t always thrilling but does carry a fog of foreboding. Henry Sharp’s cinematography is marvellous, evoking a haunting world full of physical and mental traps.
Ray Milland stars as Stephen Neale and he’s being released from Lembridge Asylum. He visits a fair while waiting for the train to London and manages to win a cake with the help of a psychic (Aminta Dyne). Unfortunately, the cake seems to bring Neale considerable trouble. He’s knocked on the head by a blind man on the train and finds a revolver, all before he can even get to London.
Neale seeks the assistance of a private eye (Erskine Sanford), with designs on investigating the people behind the fair. He finds Willi (Carl Esmond) and his sister Carla (Marjorie Reynolds), who are associated with the fair somehow. Neale follows the trail to another psychic and a séance, where a murder takes place. Things only get weirder from there.
In Greene’s novel, Milland’s character is weighed down by guilt. An event in his past led to his years in the asylum. In the film, Neale is less afflicted by blame and more pervaded with paranoia and curiosity. There are moments where one screams at him to let it go, to simply let a cake be a cake.
Alas, that’s not the case. Neale navigates the war-torn London and its surroundings with designs on finding the truth. He wants to know what the score is and this tenacity deepens when he meets and falls for the bombshell Carla. She and her brother are refugees from Nazi-invaded Austria and their Mothers of Free Nations seems a worthy cause.
There is an awful lot of mystery in Ministry of Fear and an awful lot of incongruity. Characters seem to transform into other characters, providing just a glimpse through the fog of Neale’s mind. But Lang never plays it as an evident psychological yarn; he sticks to the curious images and to little details like Dan Duryea’s enormous scissors.
Indeed, the imagery serves a larger sense of rhythm. This sets the film up as a series of events rather than a forthright yarn. The audience walks through the snares and Sharp’s lensing leads to some astounding aesthetics, like the icy and weird séance or the closing chase that makes tremendous use of lighting.
Ministry of Fear is ensconced in noir tropes, with an innocent man running through a corrupt environment. There is also a cool blonde, which suggests Hitchcock, and the moment on the train underlines the lack of trust Neale ought to have in his environment. After all, if a blind man can wallop you…
Despite its many gifts, there is a certain lack of momentum that pervades Ministry of Fear. While Lang provokes mood and texture, the plot’s complications can be difficult to track. There are many MacGuffins, not just the cake, and there are many dead ends.
For the most part, this is a quality film noir. It finds mystery, duplicity and peculiarity in the shadows, planting a patchwork of suspicion in the war rubble of London. And its cracking of the spy ring is intricate, with doubles and curiosities occupying Neale’s new world.