Saturday, October 1, 2016

Ministry of Fear (Paramount, 1944)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I ran a videotape I’d brought over: Ministry of Fear, the stylish 1944 thriller based on a Graham Greene novel, directed by Fritz Lang (triumphantly reclaiming the thriller style he pioneered and Alfred Hitchcock copied and got credit for inventing) and starring Ray Milland, Marjorie Reynolds and (in a short but chilling part that made him a star of sorts, after Lang decided to build his career by giving him more extensive parts in his next two movies, The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street) Dan Duryea. Lang complained to Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg in The Celluloid Muse that his agent neglected to win him the contractual right to revise the script before and during shooting, which may account for the almost nonsensical elaborateness of the spy plot; the script contains a lot of barely believable situations that Lang might have cleaned up if he’d had the chance. (Charles wondered why the spy ring, based in London, had to smuggle out the secret microfilm to a country town so it could be passed to the enemy agent in the form of a cake being raffled off at a county fair, when the agent was just going to bring it back to the ring’s headquarters in London anyway — the plot kicks off when Milland, who’s just been released from a two-year term in an asylum for performing euthanasia on his terminally ill wife, mistakenly gives the password that leads to his being mistaken for the enemy agent who’s supposed to receive the cake.) What makes Ministry of Fear work is Lang’s superb sense of suspense and atmosphere, most notably in the movie’s many non-dialogue scenes (including one in which a close-up of the eyes of a “blind” man who’s joined Milland on a train to London reveals that he isn’t blind at all and prepares us for something sinister to happen) and a surprisingly good performance by Milland that proves his acting ability didn’t spring full-blown from the brow of Billy Wilder (like Lang, an Austrian turned German turned American refugee from Hitler) on The Lost Weekend a year later. Charles said he liked it much better than The Heiress because the characters, though less dimensional, are also more attractive, and because Lang so effectively keeps us in suspense about the moral status of the Marjorie Reynolds character (she’s a genuine refugee from Austria whose brother, ostensibly a refugee as well, is actually the head of the Nazi spy ring — and the question is whether or not she’s a Nazi, too) — even though Reynolds’ lame attempt at a German accent doesn’t convince us for a moment that she’s a foreigner. (It’s probably just as well that they had a card-carrying Englishman like Milland in the leading role!) — 10/20/96


The “feature” Charles and I watched last Thursday was Ministry of Fear, a 1944 Paramount release (though the copyright date was 1943) directed by Fritz Lang from a script by Seton I. Miller, who also produced, based on a wartime novel by Graham Greene about a man, Stephen Neale (Ray Milland), who’s just been released from a two-year stint in a mental hospital for reasons we’re not told at first, who stumbles upon a German spy ring operating in World War II England under the cover of a charity called “Mothers of Free Nations.” By chance, near where he is to get his train from Lembridge, location of the asylum, to London, a civic group is holding a charity festival to benefit the Mothers of Free Nations, and the grand prize is an elaborate cake (“made with real eggs,” the woman running the concession insists — was there some sort of egg substitute used by bakers in war-torn Britain?). The cake is really a set-up — it contains microfilm of some British secret or other (it doesn’t really matter) and the idea was the contest would be rigged in favor of an agent of the spy ring and he would collect the cake by winning the contest to guess its weight. Stephen makes one guess and is then accosted by a fortune-teller, Mrs. Bellane — an elderly and rather homely woman — who, as part of her role in the spy ring, tells him the correct weight and orders him back to the cake booth to buy another chance with the new number. Of course the spies at the carnival have mistaken Stephen for their real courier, since none of them have ever seen him, and when their actual agent arrives they try to get the cake back from him but he insists he won it fairly and takes it away with him on the train. On the train he’s joined in his compartment by a blind man (Eustace Wyatt) — only Lang gives us an extreme close-up of the man’s eyes following Stephen so we know he’s not blind at all — and when Stephen’s back is turned and the train is momentarily stopped the “blind” man hits him with the cane and takes the cake. Stephen comes to in time to follow the guy, who shoots him and hides out in a bombed-out farmhouse — only the farmhouse is the target of another bomb, which blows it up completely and kills Stephen’s mysterious assailant. (Nazis ex machina.)

Back in London (though it’s not clear how Stephen got there), he traces Mrs. Bellane — who turns out to be a young, attractive woman (Hillary Brooke) in a lamé gown to die for — who leads a séance at which another spy, Cost (Dan Duryea), is killed, and Stephen is immediately suspected of killing him with the gun he took from the scene after the guy who stole the cake from him was blown up in the countryside. Now he’s in the position of a classic Hitchcock hero (in 1944 the original reviewers accused Lang of ripping off Hitchcock, though in fact it was the other way around; back in Weimar-era Germany Lang had been making Hitchcock-style movies before Hitchcock was; British critics in the 1930’s called Hitchcock “our Fritz Lang” and at least three of Hitchcock’s 1930’s films, The 39 Steps, The Secret Agent and Sabotage, borrow key plot elements from Lang’s 1928 German silent Spies), having to uncover the spy ring and keep its agents from killing him. He stumbles upon a bookstore that has an elaborate display of a book with a big swastika on the cover — it’s called The Psychoanalysis of Nazism and its author, Dr. J. M. Forrester (Alan Napier, who in the 1940’s got to make films for estimable directors like Lang and Orson Welles — he’s the “Holy Father” in the Welles Macbeth — in the 1950’s was reduced to crap like The Mole People and in the 1960’s got a partial rehabilitation when he played Alfred the butler in the Batman TV series), is posing as anti-Nazi when he’s really for them and is part of the spy ring — though, in a reversal considerably less shocking than Greene, Miller or Lang thought it was, the real head of it is Willi Hilfe (Carl Esmond) — the last name is also the German word for “help” — who until the end has seemed to be on the side of good along with his sister, Carla Hilfe (Marjorie Reynolds, personable as usual but with one of the worst fake German accents I’ve ever heard). The Hilfes were the main office staff of the Mothers of Free Nations but Carla, unlike her brother, turns out to be an innocent dupe who accepted her brother’s phony charity at face value.

There’s a marvelous final confrontation between Willi and Stephen in which Willi is about to shoot Carla so she doesn’t betray his secret, Stephen says, “You’d kill your own sister?” and Willi says to Stephen, “You killed your wife.” That’s a reference to what Stephen was doing in the asylum in the first place: his wife had been terminally ill and had pleaded with him to get poison and give it to her to end her suffering and let her die in peace. He’d got the drug but had been unwilling to use it, but she found it in their home and took it herself, and under the circumstances he was sentenced to two years in the asylum instead of a death sentence or a long prison term. The idea of euthanasia as Stephen’s big dark secret that explains why he can’t go to the police is surprisingly modern, but for the most part Ministry of Fear is a quite good thriller — though a bit more sluggish and less creative than I’d remembered it being from when I first saw it in the 1970’s (first on TV and then at the Cento Cedar revival house in San Francisco). In his interview with Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg for The Celluloid Muse, Lang said he was dissatisfied with the film because the screenwriter, Seton I. Miller, was also the producer and wouldn’t let him tweak the script as he was accustomed to do. Lang had tried to buy the rights to Ministry of Fear himself but Paramount had outbid him, so when Paramount offered him the job of directing it “I jumped at it, but made a big mistake by not specifying in my contract that I wanted to be able to work on the script. I took it for granted, after all the years I’d been accustomed to working on scripts, that my agent would have seen to it that the contract contained some such clause. When I came back here, I found someone in charge of the film who’d never made a picture before, who’d been a trombone player in a band or something. On top of that, I was handed a script which had practically none of the quality of the Graham Greene book. When I wanted to have changes made in it, the writer resented it deeply. Then, when I wanted to step out of the project, my agent told me I was contractually obligated to complete it. So I finished the picture to the best of my ability.”

There’s a quite fascinating message-board thread on the Ministry of Fear’s page as to whether Ministry of Fear is really film noir (though The Film Noir Encyclopedia lists it and nine other films by Lang — more than any other single director, even though it’s confined to his U.S. films and doesn’t mention the German productions which count as noir prototypes), kicked off by someone signing him/herself “dmayo-911-597432” who says Ministry of Fear isn’t film noir because Milland’s character isn’t morally ambiguous enough to be a noir hero — “[O]ur ‘man just out of a mental hospital’ has no history of mental illness, let alone a stain on his character, [so] we can put our minds at ease and simply enjoy the thrills until good triumphs over evil. This trick of having it both ways to keep the show within the comfort zone of the general public is typical of mainstream cinema. It’s alien to film noir.” Actually, one of the strategies of film noir is precisely to plunk an ordinary person leading a mainstream life into a criminal underworld he (or she) didn’t even realize existed — and Ministry of Fear certainly qualifies on that count (as does The Big Clock, a superb noir directed by John Farrow and starring Ray Milland four years after Ministry of Fear). Another message board contributor, “pt100,” wrote that Ministry of Fear wasn’t film noir because it didn’t contain a femme fatale (certainly one could imagine Ministry of Fear being closer to classic noir if the Marjorie Reynolds character had been part of her brother’s spy ring and Stephen faced the Maltese Falcon dilemma at the end: love her or turn her in? — though I don’t think a femme fatale is an absolute requirement for film noir). Yet another contributor, “gcassidy2,” defended Ministry of Fear, sort of — “It’s too optimistic to truly fit in the (style/genre/movement) of noir, but I think Lang may have been using a few of the elements that went into making many of the early 1940’s movies that were setting the style, and it tricks you into thinking it falls into that category.” S/he seems unaware that it was Fritz Lang in Germany in the 1920’s who was creating a lot of those elements — the 1928 Spies in particular is part Hitchcock movie, part James Bond movie and part film noir, and Lang’s last two German films, M (1931) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1932), certainly qualify as noir prototypes even though there aren’t any femmes fatales. (One reason I particularly like Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train is the way he flipped the gender of the person who tries to ruin Our Hero and created an homme fatal.) This time around I found it a bit on the dull side and didn’t like it as much as I had in the 1970’s, and it remains a minor work in the Lang canon — but it’s still worth seeing and an interesting counterpoint to Milland’s one film for Hitchcock, Dial “M” for Murder (1953), even though Hitchcock, with his fabled desire for anti-type casting, made Milland the villain in that one! — 10/1/16