In my quest for total Ray Milland movie-watching domination, I’ve seen Fritz Lang’s Ministry of Fear twice in the last two weeks. For a movie that apparently Lang did not hold in high-esteem, even going as far as apologizing about the effort to the novel’s author Graham Greene, I find it to be a very solid film. It seems that many have come to the same conclusion, and the Criterion Collection released both a DVD and Blu Ray edition this past March making the film widely available for viewing.
The film stars Milland as Stephen Neale, who is just being released from a two-year stint in a mental asylum. After Neale purchases a train ticket to London, he decides to pass the time until the train comes by strolling through a charity festival being held nearby. The event is for the Mothers of Free Nations, and seems to be run by several older dowagers. Neale is brought over to buy a guess on the weight of a cake, and is then shuffled to a fortune teller’s tent. Once inside, the fortune teller gives some obviously fake predictions before suddenly stating that Neale must want cake. She then gives him the exact weight which Neale then uses to claim the cake. Upon leaving the festival, several women stop Neale and tell him that the guess was off and that another gentleman made a closer guess. Neale locks eyes with the man laying claim to the cake and instead pays the women for it and walks away.
Neale then boards the train to London, and is joined in his cabin by a blind man. Once the train begins its journey, Neale offers the stranger a piece of the cake, which he wryly remarks must be made of something special because the people back at the festival seemed loath to give it up. Strangely, when Neale hands the blind man the cake, the man starts to crumble it in his hands.
A few moments later, the train is stopped by a bombing attack. As Neale looks out the window to see what is going on, the man cracks him over the head with his cane and steals the cake. Surprised that the man is not blind and has run off the train with the cake box, Neale pursues him out into the countryside. The man reaches a bombed out house and turns around to shoot at Neale with a small gun. The bombs start to fall closer, and Neale watches as the man is killed in an explosion.
Having just been released from his court-appointed time in the asylum, Neale avoids going to the police and hires a private investigator, George Rennit (Erskine Sanford) to get to the bottom of the cake mystery and why someone was trying to kill him. The pair stop at the offices of the Mothers of Free Nations, where Neale is met by the brother and sister team of Willi (Carl Esmond) and Carla Hilfe (Marjorie Reynolds). Explaining his desire to track down the volunteer fortune teller from the fair, Neale has Willi check the volunteer roster cards for her address. They find Mrs. Bellane lives in London, and set out to meet her, with the private investigator following behind.
Once Neale gets to Bellane’s mansion, he is met with a beautiful young woman (Hillary Brooke), a far cry from the older dowager telling fortunes at the fair. She invites them to join her seance, where she introduces the other guests as Dr. Forrester (Alan Napier), Martha Panteel and the man who tried to pick up the cake at the fair, Mr. Cost (Dan Duryea).
As the lights go out, Neale becomes more and more disturbed as a voice claims that he poisoned someone. In a state of panic, he breaks out of the circle, and at that exact moment, a gunshot is heard. The lights come back up and Mr. Cost is dead, having been shot in the head. Willi helps Neale to escape before the police come, and he heads back to Rennit’s office.
When Neale arrives there, he finds it ransacked, and notices he’s being followed. He calls the Mothers of Free Nations office, and reaches Carla, who has been filled in from her brother and agrees to help Neale hide. The two are forced into the underground subway tunnels during an air raid, during which Neale tells Carla about the details of the death of his wife that lead to his sentence at the mental asylum.
Once the raid is over, Carla brings Neale to a bookshop where he is able to hide out in the apartment upstairs. Neale notices a book for sale by Dr. Forrester, called The Psychology of Nazism. Carla confirms that Dr. Forrester, who was at Mrs. Bellane’s seance, is a volunteer at the Mothers of Free Nations, as well as a government worker in the Ministry of Home Security. Neale starts to put the pieces together, and suspects the Mothers of Free Nations may be a coverup for a Nazi spy ring. He asks Carla to check the volunteer cards against the people who showed up for the seance. She does, and confirms Neale’s suspicions while also relaying this information to her brother.
Neale and Carla are asked by the bookseller to deliver a large order of Forrester’s book to a private address. When they arrive at the apartment, they discover that there is no sign of anyone currently living there. As Neale opens the suitcase supposed to be filled with books, he instead triggers a bomb.
Neale awakes in a hospital and sees the man who had been tailing him outside of Rennit’s office sitting in a chair. The man identifies himself as Inspector Prentice from Scotland Yard. Neale relays to him the strange tale of the cake, and the murder at the seance. Prentice, who knows Neale’s background and record, is skeptical, especially when it turns out that the police were never called to Mrs. Bellane’s house following the murder.
Neale convinces Prentice to return to the bombed out house where the man on the train had run away with the cake. After sifting through the site, Neale finds the remnants of the cake and tears into it. He finds a single capsule, which holds a microfilm. The film holds top secret military information, which the ministry says has only been out of the vault twice. The second time was when Forrester’s tailor, a man named Travers, was there for a suit fitting. Neale recognizes Travers’ name as being the one that was registered to the empty apartment that he delivered the suitcase to, and starts to put together all of the pieces.
Prentice and Neale head to the tailor’s shop, and Neale realizes that Mr. Cost was not killed and is in fact, Travers. Memorizing the number that Travers calls, Neale listens as Travers tells the person on the other line about how the shoulders in the client’s suit should settle. Prentice and Neale move in on Travers, who flees and commits suicide. Neale rushes over and redials the number Travers had called, and Carla picks up.
Confused, Neale heads over to meet Carla. He is met by Willi, who admits that he is the head of the spy ring. Neale suspects that one other copy of the microfilm was made when Travers visited the ministry, and guesses it’s hidden in the shoulder of the coat Willi is wearing. Willi pulls out a gun to shoot Neale, but is thwarted by his sister, who throws a candlestick at Willi’s arm. He and Neale struggle, but Willi escapes and heads for the door. Carla, who recovered Willi’s gun during the skirmish, shoots her brother through the door and kills him.
After grabbing the coat, Carla and Neale head to the elevator to exit the building, but notice that someone is coming up. The door opens and Forrester and several other agents pursue the two all the way up to the roof. Both sides engage in a shootout on the roof until Prentice arrives and finishes Forrester and his men.
In a happy Hollywood ending, Carla and Neale are shown driving together, discussing their wedding. Carla mentions how she always wanted a church wedding, complete with cake, to which Neale exclaims, “Cake!?”
I find Ministry of Fear to be a great film, and I’m honestly surprised that Lang felt need to apologize for it. Sure, it’s nothing really revolutionary, but it’s a smart and engaging thriller that is almost Hitchcockian in a sense. Milland does very well as Stephen Neale, the bewildered hero who doesn’t know what is happening to him. I’ve found watching his early films, the romantic comedy roles often don’t ask much of him as an actor at times, something he admits to in his autobiography. Here, one year before his turn in The Lost Weekend, we can start to see the nuance that Milland could bring to his craft. The supporting cast is also well placed. The film itself features impressive set pieces, and some really gorgeous black and white cinematography.
Criterion’s release is excellent. I watched it on their blu ray edition, and its a beautiful transfer that captures all the loveliness of film, grain and all. For a black and white film, especially one as pretty as Ministry of Fear, capturing the full spectrum of black and white shades is important, and this release does it justice. I heartily recommend this film, especially since it has gotten such a nice treatment.