The ‘entertainments’ of Graham Greene have provided a rich source of material for makers of Film Noir. The Third Man, This Gun for Hire and Brighton Rock have all been derived from his works and, if you want to stretch the point, a case could also be made for the inclusion of The Fallen Idol and Confidential Agent. This all goes to prove that there is enough darkness and pessimism in Greene’s writings for them to lend themselves to the shadowy world of noir. And so we come to Fritz Lang’s 1944 adaptation of Ministry of Fear, where a frightened Ray Milland blunders through the bombed out streets of wartime London in pursuit of fifth columnists.
Stephen Neale (Milland) has just been released from an asylum after having been confined for the mercy killing of his wife and, naturally, is anxious to avoid any further entanglements with the law. As he waits to catch a train to London, he wanders into a charity fete where a palmist helps him to guess the weight of a cake and win it. With this seemingly innocuous incident Neale finds himself drawn into a nightmare world of murder and espionage. It turns out that the fake spiritualist had mistaken Neale for a Nazi agent (Dan Duryea) and that the cake contained something worth killing for. Neale’s curiosity leads him to follow up the matter in London where he attends a seance in the company of, among others, the aforementioned agent. When the spy is murdered Neale is falsely accused. He believes that due to his past conviction no one will believe him innocent of the murder and so he goes on the run. His only assistance comes from an Austrian refugee (Marjorie Reynolds), and while the pair try to seek out the truth they are all the time dogged by a shadowy figure in a bowler hat.
Ray Milland’s star was in the ascendancy at this point and he would win an Oscar for his performance in The Lost Weekend the following year. His role here allows him to get in a bit of practice in psychological anguish and the natural affability of the man means that it’s easy to sympathize with the plight of his character. Marjorie Reynolds is fine as his Girl Friday but the forced Austrian accent does begin to grate a little at times. Dan Duryea is always good value as a villain and the only complaint that could be made is that his character is not given nearly enough screen time. Indeed the same could be said for much of the support cast who seem to breeze in and out of the picture, but all leave lasting impressions. A notable feature of so many films of this period is the marvellous gallery of eccentrics that cropped up time and again. These people, whose faces are immediately recognizable yet whose names escape us, were character specialists who usually played similar parts in every movie and their presence added enormously to the enjoyment.
Fritz Lang’s background in expressionist film-making serves him well here and is most notable in the early scenes of the picture. The charity fete provides that slightly surreal quality that continues throughout the film. The parts with the fake blind man on the train and the ensuing chase over the fogbound moor are also beautifully photographed. Everything seems to have been shot on studio sets but this is no criticism as it helps heighten the unreal, otherworldly feel of the movie.
Optimum released Ministry of Fear on DVD in R2 last year. The transfer is not bad but it could use a clean up. All in all, this is a highly enjoyable mix of noir and espionage and it’s always good to see more of Fritz Lang’s movies making it out onto the market.