Friday, February 11, 2011

Ministry of Fear


Ministry of Fear, written by Seton I. Miller, based on the novel by Graham Greene, directed by Fritz Lang, starring Ray Milland, Marjorie Reynolds and Carl Esmond (1944): The film opens with Stephen Neale (Milland) being released from a mental asylum where he's been incarcerated for two years after being convicted of mercy-killing his terminally ill wife, though his wife actually dosed herself with the poison he'd purchased. Because this is a thriller, there's a Nazi spy ring at work in the carnival opposite the train station Neale goes to after being released. In a case of mistaken identity, he's given a cake intended for a spy within which is hidden what Hitchcock would call the McGuffin -- the thing everyone in the thriller is chasing. Hilarity ensues.

It really seems as if Paramount was trying to make Ray Milland into a poor man's Cary Grant at this time, possibly because of Milland's odd mid-Atlantic accent. Milland's tour-de-force performance as an alcoholic in Lost Weekend was still a couple of years away; here, he's a sort-of dashing Hitchcockian 'Wrong Man' trapped in a thriller plot somewhat resembling that of The 39 Steps.

The whole thing with the cake is handled with right amount of drollness, and there are some really lovely set pieces cooked up by director Fritz Lang, he of German film classics M and Metropolis and a number of classic films noir once he fled Nazi Germany in the mid-1930's.

This is indeed a 'dark film' in terms of photography, though incongruously light-hearted much of the time -- a comic-relief private detective is something of a botch. A gun fight in an English field being bombed by the Nazis looks terrific for something obviously done on a sound stage, and there are a number of other scenes in which the play of light and shadow creates an aura of menace the script can't quite maintain -- the narrative starts and stops a number of times, something quite odd for a film that's less than 90 minutes long. But Lang, strong on visuals, always seemed to be a bit weak on narrative momentum. Recommended.

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