Ministry of Fear

Ministry of FearThey’re here, in London!

There is, among novelists, a spectrum in the spy thriller genre with spies on one end and thrills on the other and all find their way onto film.  The spy of spies, who spies on spies, is George Smiley brought to life by John le Carré in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011).  On the other end of the spectrum is Ian Fleming, creator of the flashy James Bond who began his screen life in Dr. No (1962).  The man in the middle is Graham Greene, whose writings might more accurately be described as political than about espionage.  But in those far away places that interested him, the British, who were his main characters, were either fallen spies, fallen business men, or fallen authorities.  Their flaws are not so ruggedly charming as Bond’s nor as Britishly bland as Smiley’s, but sinful and usually dangerous.  This provides the intellectual cover to enjoy the adventure and in one of his pre-famous outings, Fritz Lang‘s Ministry of Fear (1944), there is much adventure.

Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) is just released from an asylum.  He seems jittery, but entirely sane and harmless.  Even though it’s the middle of the Blitz, Neale wants to go to London so that he can finally be around people.  At the train station, he spends a little time at a local fair.  It looks friendly enough and the people at the cake-weighing station, where Neale bets it’s 3 pounds and a bit, go out of their way to be nice to this stranger.  He goes to the psychic and she reads his palm and begins to go into his past.  Neale doesn’t want to go over that ground, he wants to focus on the future.  The psychic tells him to guess the weight of the cake again at four pounds and a bit.  What do you know?  That was exactly right!  Another man (Dan Duryea) drives up and heads straight for the psychic.  The cake weigher comes up to Neale and says there’s been a mistake and the new man guessed the weight, but too bad, Neale still guessed closer.  On the train, Neale is accosted and his cake stolen.  Neale follows in pursuit but the man who attacked him is blown to bits by a German bomb.  The trouble doesn’t end there!  Neale is in the middle of something and he’s going to get to the bottom of it.

It’s rather surprising that Alfred Hitchcock never adapted a Graham Greene novel.  Greene’s work, especially Ministry of Fear, seems so close to Hitchcock’s wheelhouse that it is truly unaccountable.  Apparently, Greene disliked Hitchcock’s films for their lack of reality.  According to the essay in the inside cover of my Criterion Collection edition of Ministry of Fear, Greene thought this film “very bad”.  Perhaps this is no coincidence.  Ray Milland, the villain of Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (1954), plays the part between psychologically tender and foolishly brave quite well for the film, though perhaps stronger than Greene would have liked.  The Neale character always does the right thing and without the ambivalence or self-destruction you find in characters in The Third Man (1949) or The Comedians (1967).

This is also partly a propaganda film–at least insofar as it is anti-Nazi in London during the war.  But the propaganda is less inspiring of patriotism or fearing Nazi ideology than it is inspiring of watchfulness and fearing subterfuge.  Director Fritz Lang uses shadows and perspective, always keeping the true identity of the villains slightly foggy.  It isn’t a film that hits you as a great masterpiece, nor as a bit of trifling genre work.  It’s what Graham Greene called an entertainment.  It is that.

Mentioned in this review…

The Comedians

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About Prof. Ratigan

A semi-lawyer and amateur enthusiast.
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