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Ministry of Fear
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Ministry of Fear

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 World War II. Based on a novel by Graham Greene, the script keeps you blindly guessing from one moment to the next. Even the main character is baffled for most of the movie. The story may or may not make complete sense, but Ministry of Fear is one of those pictures that operates by its own twisted logic. Though you get completely lost while you're watching, its sheer strangeness compels you to ride things out to the end.

Ray Milland plays Stephen Neale, a man who's just served two years in an English insane asylum for murdering his wife. Neale was wrongly convicted of the crime, and he now wants nothing more than to get back to a normal existence. Unfortunately, he's re-entering society at a time when England is being bombed every night by the Luftwaffe, and he's about to be drawn into a bizarre game of intrigue, one that strongly suggests madness also exists outside the asylum walls.

One day, Neale visits a mysterious fortune teller, then wins a large cake at a local carnival, which leads to his being mistaken for a Nazi spy. This has got to be the only movie that begins with intelligence agents trying to make off with a cake, and it only gets weirder from there. Eventually, the cake will explode (!), and Neale will attend another seance...which leads to his being accused of another murder. Then he'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-esque plot.

Unlike most of his Hollywood contemporaries, director Lang had a real-life connection to the Nazi party. In fact, many Germans thought he distastefully utilized the connection to get extra publicity for his war-based films Hangmen 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 that glorified the Nationalist Party. Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels approached Lang with the news, an intimidating moment that Lang remembered as sealing his fear of the Nazis. It was also his cue to get out of Germany as soon as possible.

Opinions differ wildly on Ministry of Fear. It's just that kind of movie. Some critics hail it as a masterpiece, while others find it too overtly peculiar for classic status. Lang, rather surprisingly, always felt the screenplay was beneath him, and he was never happy with the finished product. In 1967, he told Peter Bogdanovich that he had actually fallen asleep while trying to watch it on TV.

Lang's view was almost certainly tainted by the fact that screenwriter Seton I. Miller also produced the picture. Lang always bristled under authority - Josef Goebbels would have been a bit of a problem - so a writer/producer who could single-handedly crush his story alterations was the kind of thing that drove him to distraction. (He disdainfully referred to Miller as "the supposed producer" during filming.) However, even with Miller watching over his shoulder, Lang still managed to go $44,000 over the planned $700,000 budget. If he really disliked this fascinating film as much as he said he did, 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 (Carla Hilfe), Carl Esmond (Willi Hilfe), Hillary Brooke (Mrs. Bellane), Percy Waram (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