on 25 June 2011
Just released from a mental asylum for the mercy killing of his wife, a man (Ray Milland) wins a cake at a carnival by mistake. The cake was intended for a member of a covert Nazi group working in the U.K. but that mistake plunges Milland into a maelstrom of attempted murder, seances, femme fatales and spies. Based on a novel by Graham Greene and directed by Fritz Lang, the film is a rather far fetched if modestly entertaining spy thriller. But the film makers have excised all the darkness and moral ambiguity of Greene's book and put nothing in its place. This is one movie that deserves a remake! One of Lang's least memorable films. It doesn't help that the film is saddled with the pretty but bland Marjorie Reynolds as the heroine when the wickedly elegant "bad girl" Hillary Brooke is so much more intriguing. On the plus side, there's the atmospheric noir like cinematography of Henry Sharp (Vidor's THE CROWD). The workman like score is by Victor Young. With Dan Duryea, Alan Napier, Carl Esmond, Cyril Delevanti and Mary Field.
The B&W transfer from Optimum via Great Britain is a decent transfer.
on 16 May 2012
If there ever was a man in movie history to make spy movies, Fritz Lang was that man. He was among the first to lay down the tropes of the genre in Dr. Mabuse and later Spione (which still echoes in James Bond and modern technotrillers), and he could also give it his own paranoid spin, pitting his heroes against all-powerful conspiracies and systems of oppression. Lang's movies are full of people being followed, ransacked offices, webs of deception and characters assuming false appearances and personas. Ministry of Fear is one of the best of those movies.
Set in wartime London, the movie stars Stephen Neale, a man released from an insane asylum, who accidentally finds himself in the middle of a Nazi espionage plot. An innocent fairground prize becomes a deadly lure; people get killed in disquieting ways and shadowy characters begin stalking our hero, who falls for a pretty Austrian refugee while on the run.
The action takes place in a claustrophobic world alternating between shadowy staircases, streets under blackout and dilapidated apartments, intercut with scenes in bright salons and perfectly wholesome offices, which contain a different, more subtle form of menace. It is to the credit of Ray Milland, the actor playing Neale, that he is perfect as the man being followed: he is full of nervous tension as he moves from shadow to shadow, always only a step ahead of his pursuers; it is his eyes, looking out for unseen enemies, that tell us he is being hunted. Marjorie Reynolds is good enough as the beautiful Carla, but credit must especially go to the unctuous Dan Duryea and the menacing Percy Waram, who play some of the movie's opponents with a threatening air.
There is very little in Ministry of Fear someone with a knowledge of the spy genre, thrillers and film noir wouldn't find familiar. It is a formulaic film - but we must not forget that it was made by one of the people who created that formula. It brings an excellent combination of set design (obviously not the real London, but acceptable as its Nazi-haunted counterpart), performance and camera work. The action is tense and packed, and every few minutes, there is some piece of iconic imagery I couldn't help but marvel at. Also, while it may not be chock full of them, this movie gets "Nazis" perfectly as villains: they are out there in the shadows, they move in them with a careless, elegant ease, and they are out to get you. Ministry of Fear is not the best or most important Lang movie, and it is reputedly marred by studio interference. Nevertheless, it is still one of the greats - perhaps not a classic, but close enough, and a perfect introduction to Lang's mid-career work.
"The Ministry of Fear" was directed by Fritz Lang in 1944 and was adapted from the Graham Greene novel of the same name. "Ministry" is essentially a spy thriller similar to Alfred Hitchcock's "Foreign Correspondent" (1940). Hitchcock and Lang's career developed at pretty much the same time in the silent 20s and through the 30s although Lang's films suggested a far darker world view. With such classics as "Dr Mabuse: The Gambler"(1922), "Metropolis"(1927), "M"(1931) Lang established himself as a true innovator in German expressionist cinema and its that quality which he would take with him when he moved to Hollywood in the mid 30s. Lang can be credited as a major player in the development of Film Noir where imagery would become a significant part of the story. His first two American films "Fury"(1936) and "You Only Live Once"(1937) are often credited as two of the earliest examples of Film Noir before the 1940s. In 1944 and 1945 he made three classics of Film Noir: "Ministry of Fear", "The Woman in the Window"(1944) and "Scarlett Street"(1945). It can be difficult for younger audiences to appreciate what makes Lang so important because many of his cinematic innovations seem commonplace today but Lang's dark vision of modern metropoli and a deep sense of paranoia and fear was truly original at the time. "Ministry of Fear" has all the popular themes of Film Noir such as labyrinthine plots, femme fatales and the innocent man being sucked into the whirlpool of the Noir world that makes it a brilliantly entertaining genre to watch. Film Noir buffs will not want to miss this.
The Optimum Home Entertainment DVD is of a good standard.
on 31 May 2013
Ministry of Fear (1944) is one of four Fritz Lang wartime espionage thrillers that were interfered with by their respective studios beyond the director's control. One understands the need for propaganda in such sensitive political times, but the need for simplistic Good v Evil and a happy end worked against Lang's usual claustrophobic obsessions. Man Hunt (1941), Hangmen Also Die (1943), Cloak and Dagger (1946) and Ministry of Fear are all films with great promise, but which are sadly flawed as a result. Ministry of Fear starts off brilliantly enough with the credits rolling over one of Lang's many clocks to appear throughout his work. Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) is counting the seconds down to the moment of his release from Lembridge Asylum where he has just spent two years because of the mercy killing of his wife. One cycle of Langian fate is concluded and another is about to kick off. The suggestion of psychological turmoil leads to four scenes where we literally can't trust what we see. First is a village fete (set at night with kids running around!!) where Neale wins a cake. We see a tall blonde figure (Dan Duryea) for the first time. He is certainly one of Lang's harbingers of fate. Second is a train sequence where a blind man is introduced by his cane tapping on the platform through a cloud of smoke. Is he a real person, or a figment of Neale's psychologically disturbed imagination? This leads to an unlikely bomb-attack, a death and a gun - actual events or more symptoms of Neale's paranoia? Third is a seance to which Neale is taken by an Austrian named Willi Hilfe (Carl Esmond) as a result of his investigation into 'The Mothers of Free Nations', an emigre charity organization responsible for the fete. At the seance we meet the tall blonde man again (calling himself Mr Cost) and in the gloom a mysterious voice claims she was poisoned by Neale - the clearest indication yet that everything we have seen so far is Neale's hallucination as it is impossible that others at the seance know about his wife. A shot rings out. Lights go up to reveal a murder with Neale the probable culprit. We are still unsure about Neale as Lang's carefully constructed mise-en-scene has so meticulously established a sense of ambiguity. An unlikely escape is followed by the last scene to really work in the film where Neale hides from his pursuers in the London Underground with Carla Hilfe (Marjorie Reynolds), the sister of Willi. As a mysterious man searches for him, Neale tells Carla about the killing of his wife. This works very well for we are as in the dark (in the underground!) about Neale as she is. In Graham Greene's book which 1944 audiences would have known, Neale's killing is more murder than assisted-suicide and they would have trusted Neale even less than we do. We are also unsure about Carla, her being of obviously Aryan extraction and a possible member of the Nazi spy ring.
Up to this point the film is Grade A film noir. Atmospheric shadowy lighting and slick camera work by Henry Sharp adds to the psychological ambiguity of Lang's mise-en-scene. A splash of paranoia here and a dash of violence there and all we need to make it a complete film noir is a femme fatale. Unfortunately characterization across the board soon becomes way too telegraphed for the film's good. Two possible femmes fatale are introduced. There's the beautiful medium, Mrs Bellane (Hillary Brooke) who is given a scene of character development only to be abrubtly forgotten. Then there is Carla who becomes merely the 'love interest'. Had our doubts about the characters been maintained until the very end, the film may have reached greatness. Too bad the carpet is ripped from under our (and Lang's) feet by the powers that be at Paramount who re-cut the film into a straight-forward goodies v baddies Boys' Own Hitchcock-wannabe spy jaunt. As the psychological complexity is stripped away so is our suspension of disbelief and we find ourselves faced with fake London sets, unbelievable wooden stereotypes mouthing movie talk which sounds terrible. It's all a far cry from the subtlety of The Woman in the Window which Lang made the same year. Traces of what could have been remain - especially the reappearance of Dan Duryea as a sinister tailor who dials a telephone number with a long pair of tailor's shears before topping himself - but these can't cover up the film's final idiocies. I found the final rooftop shoot-out ridiculous when I saw it as a kid over 30 years ago and my feeling is still the same - did Lang really shoot this? Then there's the absurd final scene of the two leads driving on the coast, talking about marriage and cake(!!) in a happy-go-lucky manner which feels like it's strayed in from another movie entirely. No, this is far from classic Lang. Lovers of Graham Greene won't like it either as the film strays too far from the book. In the book Arthur Rowe's (Stephen Neale in the film) guilt over the murder of his wife hangs over him the entire time and the final marriage between him and Anna (Carla in the film) is far from spontaneous and care-free. It's ironic that the original book is more Langian than Lang's film version of it. Paramount's efforts to turn the film into another Foreign Correspondent (1940) or Saboteur (1941) fudged the themes Greene and Lang were trying to ellucidate with the result that both of them duly hated the film when it was released. A curate's egg then, but the DVD itself is good. Optimum Home Entertainment have done a good job with the visual side, but the sound is too recessed for my liking. No extras, but at this price Lang devotees should snap this up as quickly as they can.
I love this film. It's been on TV countless times, and I enjoy it every time. This OPTIMUM release is OK. The picture is good but I found the sound a bit "up and down" on a few occasions, not that it spoiled my pleasure in any way, but I just felt maybe Optimum could possibly have done a bit better. What is there left to say about the actual film that others have not said? Well, as another reviewer wrote, if you have never seen this before (Is there anyone who hasn't?), you might prefer to not read the back of the release, and if you haven't seen it you should be in for a very pleasant viewing experience. Beautifully photographed with Milland sturdy in the lead, and despite some plot oddities, this grips and entertains from the opening scenes right til the very last shot. Highly recomended to all Film Lovers. If the print had been just that little bit better it would definitely be 5 stars.
Phout's review makes the good point that many of Lang's innovations now seem commonplace, so it can be hard to appreciate just how good he was. Not helped either by the way that women fall in love with men in such films now looking so hopelessly old fashioned and unrealistic.
But it's a good fun plot that moves along at a nice pace, so there's plenty to enjoy even if you're not into the details of cinematic history.
The DVD is very basic, having the film and the trailer, but no extras.
The back cover of the DVD box gives away a plot twist that is not revealed until well in to the film (as does Amazon's description of the item) so if you're bothered about such things hold off your reading until after watching the film.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Ministry Of Fear is directed by Fritz Lang & is adapted for the screen by Seton I. Miller from the Graham Greene novel "The Ministry Of Fear." It stars Ray Milland as Stephen Neale, an ex-insane asylum inmate who is released after a two year sentence for what was allegedly the "mercy" killing of his incurably ill wife. Upon his release Neale buys his train ticket to London but is drawn to a fête being held near the rail station. From here, after a bizarre encounter with a fortune teller and a go at a "guess the weight of the cake" booth, he is thrust into a world of espionage; a world that sees him now have the Nazis on his tail.
The film opens with a ticking clock, the seconds counting down to midnight. Germanesque credits arrive on the screen, telling us of our principal players and film makers. A rear shot of a man sitting in a chair staring up at said clock, that man is Ray Milland as Stephen Neale and we immediately know that atmosphere will play a big part in this story. Things are further made interesting when a trio of interesting points suddenly leap out and force us the viewer to notice. Just what sort of film has its protagonist be released from a mental asylum at midnight? How come the rail station is open after midnight? And more importantly, what sort of fête is held at this time of night? You could easily be forgiven for thinking you have just stepped into The Twilight Zone some 14 years before it sprang from Rod Serling's brain!
Of course this being a Fritz Lang film one shouldn't be surprised to find the piece heavy on atmosphere. Yet Lang apparently didn't have it all his own way on the movie, issues about the script and other technical matters apparently blighted the production. But be that as it may, this is undeniably a Lang movie, even if one or two itches stop it from becoming a genuine film noir classic to rival that other well known Greene adaptation that followed four years later. It's a fair point critics saying that the cheap studio sets don't harm the movie, because they don't really. But genre fans surely can't help thinking just how great this could have been with actual location work involved. The main issue is the ending which, without providing spoilers for the readers, is poor in relation to what had preceded it in terms of mood and intelligence. It's all too elementary and a resort to what they obviously deemed was a crowd pleasing formula. Tightness of plot gives way to action-packeroo, and it doesn't sit quite right. I like to think it's here where Lang had the most objection?
Still, there's so much to admire and enjoy here, not least Milland's excellent performance as the innocent man having a hard time convincing any officials that he's done nothing wrong. He in turn is backed up by the pretty and hard looking Hilary Brooke, who along with Dan Duryea in a small but pivotal role, puts a bit of a sinister film noir sheen on things. Then there is the near expressionistic feel to the piece, with a number of scenes being truly memorable. The whole fête sequence, with snatches of silence, is a classy bit of disquieting cinema. Or a blind mans walking stick tapping its way thru the rail station steam that carries a sense of foreboding that harks to the Universal Monster classics from the previous decade. There's even real beauty too, check out the camera work at the asylum, sumptuous! With mystery, intrigue, melodrama, Nazis, a cake and a huge pair of scissors, Ministry Of Fear is not to be missed by the classic movie fan. 8/10
on 28 December 2008
Steve Neale (Ray Milland) is let out of a psychiatric hospital after finishing his sentence for murdering his wife. However, he is immediately unwittingly dragged into a spy ring's activities when he wins a cake at a fair. The film follows his attempts to understand what is going on around him and why his life is in danger.
The cast all do well and there are some good scenes, eg, the blind man on the train; the seance at Mrs Bellane's (Hillary Brooke) apartment; and the scene at the tailor's shop near the end where Travers (Dan Duryea) casually makes a phone call with an enormous pair of scissors. Carl Esmond is good as Willi Hilfe who befriends Milland, but it's a shame that Marjorie Reynolds chose to affect a German accent as Carla. It's not very good.
There are some rather far-fetched parts to the story - eg, Carla trusting Steve so wholeheartedly from the beginning (no way!), finding a cake that has been blown up (no way!) and someone rushing through a door to make a getaway yet somehow being shot dead through it (no way!) - yet although the film may be confusing at times due to the number of characters involved, it is still fun entertainment.
on 4 July 2011
All sorts of pleasures from this film. The idea that Lang really lost his edge when he went to Hollywood just is not true - Scarlet Street, Hangmen Also Die!, The Woman in the Window, the immaculate The Big Heat and now this, a chaotic, Expressionist chase across a Blitzed England, filmed entirely in Hollywood on some great sets and with a largely American cast all busily using excellent British(or Cherman)accents. As with his other major films there is a strange glee to the violence almost unique to Lang (perhaps in part shared only with Siodmak and Fuller).
Ministry of Fear is definitely comparable to mid-level '40s Hitchcocks such as Foreign Correspondent or Saboteur - in fact it is like delightedly discovering a new Hitchcock - same set-piece structure, same blonde, same ridiculous spy ring, indeed the spy ring members are probably getting tips from any survivors of The Thirty-Nine Steps. The opening sequence where Milland is released from a lunatic asylum, goes straight to a macabre wartime village fete and then foolishly decides to go to the guess-the-weight-of-the-cake stall is a masterpiece of loopiness. I am not saying this is great art, but it is really entertaining - and the remorseless final shoot-out as disturbing as the one in the British version of The Man Who Knew Too Much.
The Ministry of Fear, published in 1943 was always one of my favourite Graham Greene novels. Unconventional and surreal, it was thriller writing with attitude.
Perhaps inspired by the success of Alan Ladd in A Gun for Hire, this film was made in Hollywood the subsequent year by Fritz Lang, who had himself left Germany for Hollywood. America entered the war with Germany in 1941, it was to run until 1945.
The film was therefore surprisingly contemporary when it was made, describing the threat of Nazi conspirators and wartime bombings.
It starts with the protagonist, Ray Milland, released from an asylum, he is then drawn into an intriguing conspiracy. It has an atmosphere like the Avengers, or John Buchan, a slightly idealised notion of England turned sinister and threatening. There are scenes reminiscent of Hitchcock at his best, and striking black and white photography. The middle of the film does sag slightly, although the portrayal of emigrees from Europe is surprisingly sympathetic for the period. The ending ties up things neatly, with a few more twists along the way. Despite the darkness of the themes, and the original book, the film is akin to the Thin Man films in its mood of light comedy, with attractive leads in Milland, and Marjorie Reynolds.
We have been spoilt by subsequent films with plentiful location shooting of a bombed London, this was filmed in Hollywood stage sets, and does not look remotely like London.
Nevertheless, this is a well made, engaging and entertaining film. The only extra is a trailer which manages to give away the entire plot, so is best avoided until you have seen the film.