Saturday, 23 March 2013

Ministry of Fear (1944) - Fritz Lang

   Right from the ominous opening music and image of a pendulum slowly swinging back and forth you know that Ministry of Fear isn’t going to be a comedy. Of course it isn’t, it’s a Fritz Lang adaptation of a novel by Graham Greene how could it be anything other than a nourish thriller? And yet despite those credentials Ministry of Fear does have a gloriously dark streak of humour running through it. In that way (and a few others) it’s the most Hitchcockian Fritz Lang film I’ve ever seen, an innocent man on the run, a league of evil wrong doers operating within plain sight of ordinary society, a blonde love interest and of course the all important McGuffin to propel the film ever forwards. It’s all so Hitchcock in fact that you almost keep an eye out for the great man’s cameo. Almost. But I’m getting ahead of myself a bit here, so let’s wind back to that opening pendulum and pick it up from there.

   It turns out that said pendulum is attached to a wall mounted clock (Lang does love his clocks), which is being stared at intently by our films hero Stephen Neale (Ray Milland). As it strikes six o’clock someone enters the room and informs Neale that he is free to go, and offers up the advice that in future he should try and steer clear of the police. So far so mysterious. It turns out Neale is leaving an asylum, although why he was in there we don’t find out just yet. This opening scene of Ministry of Fear really sets the tone for the rest of the film with it's long dark shadows. Lang is always one step ahead of his audience, it’s a mystery which we are encouraged to try and solve as the film progresses and as such it works extremely well.

   Anyway poor old Neale leaves the asylum determined to head for the bright lights of London. Before he even makes it to the train station though he spots a fete and the first of many suspension of disbelief moments begins. Maybe I should have mentioned that the film is set during WWII, since a fete at six in the evening seems a little unlikely. But as it turns out that’s the least of this films lapses in logic. So where was I? At the fete Neale ends up winning a cake (don’t ask), which becomes Ministry of Fear’s McGuffin. You see due to a mix up involving a palm reader (like I said, don’t ask), Neale has been given a cake that was meant to go to a Nazi spy. Oh yes it’s 1944 and the bad guys are all Nazis don’t you know. Anyway to cut a long story short Neal hops on a train to London, gets attacked by a blind man en route, who then nicks his cake and runs off across what looks like no mans land (but is in fact an obvious sound stage outdoor set) during an air raid, dodges bullets and bombs, gets accused of shooting someone at a seance and becomes that innocent man on the run that I mentioned earlier.

   All of the above happens within the first thirty minutes of Ministry of Fear. So to say it’s fast moving would be doing it a disservice, it rattles along at a cracking speed and at a few minutes shy of an hour and a half is over before you know it. There’s no title card at the start of the film informing us when and where the action is taking place, instead we get constant references to life during wartime. The cake is praised as being made with real eggs, which would really be something during those heavily rationed times. Black drapes hang everywhere too and there is constant chatter about the blackouts that were a nightly occurrence during the Blitz. A whole section of the film even takes place in one of the London Underground stations which doubled up as air raid shelters back then. All of the above works supremely well and grounds the film in the period in which it is set. Of course London is never actually shown being bombed, that sort of thing just wouldn’t do. There was a war on after all.

As is well documented the villains of this film in real life had an affinity for Fritz Lang's films. So much so that according to Lang he was approached by Joseph Goebbels to become the head of UFA (Universum Film AG) which would have resulted in him being a huge part of the Nazi propaganda that was churned out during WWII. Lang baulked at the idea and fled that night to Paris, and then later to the safer shores of the U.S. I can’t say for sure but I’m guessing Goebbels wasn’t so keen on Lang’s American output, which during the early forties was chock-a-block with Allied propaganda. Manhunt for instance starts with an assassination attempt on the Führer. For Lang it must have been incredibly important to distance himself from the insanity that his countrymen were wreaking across the globe, especially since he had settled in the U.S.A. a country that despite being founded by European immigrants was well known for it’s intolerance of anything other then the American way of life.

   Anyway back to the film, Ray Milland is pretty darn good as a the man on the lam, able to switch between wry one liners delivered with a raised eyebrow to running and jumping style action at the drop of a fedora. The sort of thing that Cary Grant always made look so easy. Of the rest of the cast Percy Waram as Inspector Prentice really stands out and makes a great foil for Neale during the last third of the film. Marjorie Reynolds is the love interest and doesn’t really get all that much to do sadly, she’s mainly there as a crutch for the men in the film. Far more interesting is Hillary Brooke who gets the full five star noir introduction walking out from darkened shadows into the light.

   The most obvious thing this film has going for it and probably the reason you’re reading this now is of course Fritz Lang. By this time in his career he was already a master director with enough classics under his belt to ensure he’d always be remembered. His American films may not hold a candle to his earlier German output but they were always well directed. He was a real master with shadows and light, the final rooftop shoot out in Ministry of Fear for instance where a darkened stairwell is lit fleetingly by gun blasts is one of the best looking things you’ll see in a film from this period. The same can be said of the seance scene which takes place in a gigantic room with a circular table and chairs in its center. Once the lights drop Lang gives each of the people at the table a spotlight, visually it’s reminiscent of Ken Adam’s war room set for Dr. Strangelove. Which of course was a full twenty years away from being filmed.

   It’s impossible to write about Ministry of Fear without mentioning Graham Greene and his famously sniffy attitude to Hollywood adaptations of his books. I can see why, since quite often they jettisoned back story and motivation for characters and delved straight into the story. I haven’t read the Greene novel this is based on so I can’t really comment on how it differs. What I can say though is that Greene’s prose doesn’t have any real zip to it. Whereas this film really is the cinematic equivalent of a page-turner, it’s episodic with Neale being thrown from one situation to another leaving the audience with almost no time to work out just who the villain is.

   Talking of villains the two things the audience have to work out during the course of Ministry of Fear are the identity of the head of the Nazi ring and just what was in that 4lb 15oz cake? Anyone familiar with the language of cinema will be able to spot the chief Nazi straight away. How? Just by the way he/she holds a cigarette since all screen Nazis hold their cigarettes in a weird way. As for the cake, well it’s not so much what was in it that is the mystery as much as how did it not get blown to kingdom come when the police were finding bits of the guy holding it scattered all over the show? But as always with these films it’s not so much the destination as the journey.

   Ministry of Fear falls into a strange place in Lang’s oeuvre, it’s not anywhere near his best work and yet it’s nowhere near bad enough to be dismissed or forgotten either. It falls somewhere in-between those two camps, and is best viewed as such. There’s little point in pouring over why characters do what they do, or even what happens to certain people once their value to the story has run dry since logic seems to take a back seat at times. It’s best to just go along with it all a-la Hitchcock and enjoy the ride.

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