Cast & Crew
During World War II in England, inmate Stephen Neale is released from an asylum after having served a two-year sentence for killing his terminally ill wife. Stephen buys a train ticket to London, but before the train departs, he is drawn to a nearby charity fête being held by the Mothers of Free Nations. Stephen buys a ticket for a cake weight-guessing contest, then on the advice of fortune-teller Mrs. Bellane, Stephen buys a second ticket and correctly gives the weight of the cake. Stephen wins the cake, but before he exits the fête, a man in a black coat rushes into Mrs. Bellane's tent, and Stephen is told his guess was wrong after all. As Stephen's first guess was still closest to the true weight, he jubilantly boards the train with his cake. Stephen is joined in his compartment by a blind man, with whom he shares the cake, but does not notice when the man momentarily breaks his glazed look to watch him. When the train comes to a stop due to a bombing raid, Stephen looks out the window, and the blind man hits him over the head with his cane, then runs out of the compartment clutching the cake. The man shoots at Stephen as he chases him across the misty moors, but perishes when a bomb drops on the cottage in which he has taken refuge. Later in London, Stephen hires Mr. Rennit, an alcoholic private detective, to help him investigate the Mothers of Free Nations organization. Austrians Willi Hilfe and his beautiful sister Carla run the charity, and agree to help Stephen after hearing his story. Rennit follows Willi and Stephen to Mrs. Bellane's house, but Stephen is shocked to find that the glamorous woman calling herself Mrs. Bellane is not the same as the fortune-teller at the bazaar. Mrs. Bellane invites them to join a séance, whose other partipants include psychiatrist Dr. Forrester, artist Martha Penteel, and Mr. Cost, whom Stephen recognizes as the black-coated man at the fair. After the room darkens, Mrs. Bellane seems to speak as Stephen's dead wife and accuses him of murdering her. After Stephen becomes hysterical, Cost is shot to death, and Stephen is accused of his murder. Willi helps Stephen escape, and by nightfall, Stephen discovers that Rennit's office has been ransacked and that he has disappeared. Stephen then meets Carla alone during an air raid, and reveals details about his previous crime: Stephen's terminally ill wife begs him to end her misery, but when he is unable to administer the poison he has bought, she takes the poison herself. Stephen is found guilty of mercy killing and is incarcerated in an asylum. Carla is compassionate toward Stephen and the next day takes him to hide at her friend Newland's bookshop. After picking up Forrester's book, The Psychology of Nazism , and learning that Forrester is an advisor to the Ministry for Home Security, Stephen suspects that Carla's organization may be a front for spies. Carla, meanwhile, returns to her office to search the card files for all the names affiliated with the organization, while Stephen learns from Mrs. Bellane that she used published information about his trial for the séance, and admits that it was not she who gave him the cake's correct weight. Carla then identifies several people enrolled in the charity as possible German spies and confides her fears to Willi. Willi urges her to stay away from Stephen, but Carla confesses that she has fallen in love with him. Later, Carla and Stephen become engaged and deliver some books for Newland to Forrester. When they are let into an empty apartment, the suitcase in which they are carrying the books explodes. Stephen awakens alone some time later in a hospital, and is interrogated by Prentice, a Scotland Yard inspector who has been following him. Stephen refuses to reveal Carla's identity in order to protect her. Prentice, who has arrested Stephen for Rennit's murder, doubts Stephen's story of a spy ring, but agrees to search the site where the blind man died. After an exhaustive search of the moors, Stephen finds a small tube of film embedded in a chunk of cake. At the national Ministry for Home Security, the film is revealed to be the new defense plans for the Channel, which had only been taken out of the vault twice before, once while Forrester was present. Defense agents now realize that Travers, a tailor recommended by Forrester, was the only civilian at the Ministry the previous day, and that the apartment where the bomb exploded was leased in his name. Prentice goes to Travers' shop for a suit fitting, and when Stephen arrives five minutes later, he recognizes Travers as "Cost," who he thought was dead. Cost pretends not to recognize him, and after making a phone call, escapes into another room and stabs himself to death with a pair of shears. While a crowd gathers around Cost, Stephen telephones the number of Cost's most recent suit delivery and recognizes Carla's voice at the other end. Stephen goes to their apartment, where Willi takes both him and an innocent Carla hostage, and admits that he has been trying to get rid of them because they know too much about the spy ring. Stephen realizes that the most recent film is sewn into the suit, and attacks Willi. Carla kills her disloyal brother during the struggle and escapes with Stephen onto the roof. After exchanging gunfire with Forrester, he and his entourage of Nazi spies are killed by British police. Some time later, Stephen and Carla plan their church wedding.
B. G. Desylva
Seton I. Miller
Seton I. Miller
W. C. Smith
Ministry of Fear
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
Ministry of Fear
A pre-release synopsis in the Paramount Script Collection at the AMPAS Library, and publicity materials in the copyright records, describes the plot of this film somewhat differently than the viewed print. According to the synopsis, the character "Rennit" is held hostage by the spy ring and released after "Stephen" and "Carla" kill "Willi." This scene May have been shot and cut prior to the film's release. Although copyright records list Aminta Dyne and Hillary Brooke's characters respectively as "Mrs. Bellaire #1" and "Mrs. Bellaire #2," Paramount changed the characters' names to "Bellane" after learning that a prominent and well-respected spiritualist named Erica Bellairs had died not long before production had begun. According to a Hollywood Reporter news item, Ministry of Fear was initially acquired as a vehicle for Alan Ladd, but he enlisted in the Army before production began. Ladd previously appeared in This Gun for Hire (see below), which was also adapted from a Graham Greene novel. Hollywood Reporter news items reveal the following information about the production: Rita Johnson was originally cast as "Mrs. Bellane #2," but withdrew from the cast due to illness. Pola Negri was considered for the role of the fortune-teller, and English comedienne Constance Little was engaged to sing in the film, but did not appear.