Ministry Of Fear (Fritz Lang, 1944)
Ministry Of Fear, Fritz Lang’s American period noir, is based off a book that I have not read. It is hard to explain the mesmerizing quality of Lang’s command. Unlike the booming M (1931), Lang’s other works take a hypnotic hold. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) is a prime example. It’s a film that still confounds me – it is unlike many I’ve seen before or since. Ministry Of Fear, more accessible, holds a similar mystique in the face of flawless noir technique.
Set during World War II, a man comes into information about a Nazi spy mission. With no one to trust and Nazis on his trail, what will he do?
Starring the lost Ray Milland, Ministry Of Fear is in capable hands. Lang casted the film well, all able to switch from harmless to threatening with a simple sneer. The tension is built on a prized cake. Milland’s character, Stephen Neal, wins a cake at a fair. When he boards a train, cake in tow, he encounters a blind man. The shock and aggression with which Neal is attacked is both startling and perfect – the blind man runs off with the cake. Stephen has been in an institution. His crime, arguable on moral grounds, haunts him. A séance gone wrong does more to illustrate Stephen’s character than to push plot. Comparable to Herk Harvey’s Carnival Of Souls (1962), there is an eerie subtext at work. Stephen’s bewilderment becomes the viewers’.
It feels like wartime, siren’s blaring, people dragging to bomb shelters. It’s a dystopian wasteland in black-and-white. It feels futuristic, like Godard’s Alphaville (1965). Lang uses a historical backdrop for added vitriol and paranoia. There may not be a greater villain than the Nazis. Ministry Of Fear is not to be heralded for plot, though that’s not a knock. In fact, it’s a triumph – so much to admire before we even get to the shiny nuts of bolts.
Marjorie Reynolds, like a blonde-headed deer, plays Carla Hilfe. Carla is Stephen’s love interest, but she’s an illegal alien, hiding from deportation. We never know to trust her. We are unable to trust Lang, as well – what does convention mean to him?
See It? YES
Top 100? Maybe