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It's hard to imagine a more convoluted plot than Ministry of Fear (1944), one of the American thrillers that German expatriate Fritz Lang directed during WorldWar II. Based on a novel by Graham Greene, the script keeps you blindlyguessing from one moment to the next. Even the main character is baffledfor most of the movie. The story may or may not make complete sense, butMinistry of Fear is one of those pictures that operates by its owntwisted logic. Though you get completely lost while you're watching, itssheer strangeness compels you to ride things out to the end.
Ray Milland plays Stephen Neale, a man who's just served two years in anEnglish insane asylum for murdering his wife. Neale was wrongly convictedof the crime, and he now wants nothing more than to get back to a normalexistence. Unfortunately, he's re-entering society at a time when Englandis being bombed every night by the Luftwaffe, and he's about to be drawninto a bizarre game of intrigue, one that strongly suggests madness alsoexists outside the asylum walls.
One day, Neale visits a mysterious fortune teller, then wins a large cake ata local carnival, which leads to his being mistaken for a Nazi spy. Thishas got to be the only movie that begins with intelligence agents trying tomake off with a cake, and it only gets weirderfrom there. Eventually, the cake will explode (!), and Neale will attendanother seance...which leads to his being accused of another murder. Thenhe'll be forced to clear his name while trying to expose the spy network.But that's just the bare bones of a wildly Byzantine, Kafka-esqueplot.
Unlike most of his Hollywood contemporaries, director Lang had a real-lifeconnection to the Nazi party. In fact, many Germans thought he distastefullyutilized the connection to get extra publicity for his war-based filmsHangmen Also Die (1943), Ministry of Fear, Man Hunt (1941), and Cloak and Dagger (1946). As Lang stated in an interview for Hangmen Also Die, Adolf Hitler had personally selected him to make pictures thatglorified the Nationalist Party. Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbelsapproached Lang with the news, an intimidating moment that Lang rememberedas sealing his fear of the Nazis. It was also his cue to get out of Germanyas soon as possible.
Opinions differ wildly on Ministry of Fear. It's just that kind ofmovie. Some critics hail it as a masterpiece, while others find it tooovertly peculiar for classic status. Lang, rather surprisingly, always feltthe screenplay was beneath him, and he was never happy with the finishedproduct. In 1967, he told Peter Bogdanovich that he had actually fallenasleep while trying to watch it on TV.
Lang's view was almost certainly tainted by the fact that screenwriter SetonI. Miller also produced the picture. Lang always bristled under authority -Josef Goebbels would have been a bit of a problem - so a writer/producer whocould single-handedly crush his story alterations was the kind of thing thatdrove him to distraction. (He disdainfully referred to Miller as "thesupposed producer" during filming.) However, even with Miller watching overhis shoulder, Lang still managed to go $44,000 over the planned $700,000budget. If he really disliked this fascinating film as much as he said hedid, he could still take solace in that.
Director: Fritz Lang
Producer: Seton I. Miller
Screenplay: Seton I. Miller (based on the novel by Graham Greene)
Editor: Archie Marshek
Music: Miklos Rozsa and Victor Young
Cinematographer: Henry Sharp
Art Direction: Hans Dreier, Hal Pereira
Set Design: Bert Granger
Costumes: Edith Head
Principal Cast: Ray Milland (Stephen Neale), Marjorie Reynolds (CarlaHilfe), Carl Esmond (Willi Hilfe), Hillary Brooke (Mrs. Bellane), PercyWaram (Inspector Prentice), Dan Duryea (Cost/Travers), Alan Napier (Dr.Forrester), Erskine Sanford (Mr. Rennit), Thomas Louden (Mr. Newland)
BW-87m. Closed captioning.
by Paul Tatara