Fact: Fritz Lang is a genius. He is renown for his classic films, Metropolis, The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse and ’M’. And rightly so. But even his lesser films are of an incredibly high standard. The Big Heat for example, is one of my favourite crime films of all time. Now I have just discovered Ministry Of Fear. What a discovery! It’s an absolutely cracking film. I hate to compare two masters of cinema, but Lang’s film is in the Hitchcock style. Or more correctly, this is the type of story that Hitchcock does so well, and this is Lang’s attempt at ‘the innocent bystander accidentally gets drawn into a web of spies’ type of story.
The film opens in wartime England, outside London, and Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) has just been released from a mental asylum. (Graham Green fans will note that the character’s name has been changed from Arthur Rowe.) Neale has just spent two years locked away for killing his wife. Now he is free, he is heading back to London. Whilst waiting for a train, he stops at a nearby fete run by a charity group called ‘The Mothers of Free Nations’. Wandering through the stalls and amusements, two elderly ladies suggest that he visits the fortune teller. He does. Inside the tent, the fortune teller informs Neale of the weight of a cake that is in competition outside. That is to say, that if you guess the correct weight of the cake, you get to take it home. Neale goes over to the cake stand; pays a shilling (it is a fundraiser), then guesses the weight as foretold by the fortune teller. Neale is correct and the cake is his.
As Neale is about to leave the fete with his prize, a taxi pulls up at the gates. A man rushes out and dashes over to the fortune tellers tent. It seems that ‘cake competition’ was rigged, and the cake was intended for this newcomer. But it is too late. Neale boards a train for London.
As the train is about to shunt off, a blind man enters Neale’s compartment. Both men make idle chatter as the train rattles on. But then the train grinds to a halt as a German air raid begins. As Neale peaks at the explosive light show through a crack in the curtain, the blind man raises his cane and knocks Neale out. It appears that Neale’s travelling companion isn’t as visually impaired as he would have us believe. He then grabs the cake and exits the carriage, running off into a surrounding marsh.
Neale comes to, just in time to see the man running off and chooses to follow him. After all, in wartime, good cake is hard to come by! As Neale closes in on the thief, the man turns and starts firing a pistol.
Overhead, the bombing from the German aircraft is getting closer. The thief ducks into an abandoned shack only to have a shell land at his location. The shack, the thief, and the cake are all blown to smithereens.
From then on, poor old Stephen Neale, who may or may not be crazy, is drawn into a world of death, deception, nazi spies, bombs in suitcases, and political intrigue. And it’s all handled with Lang’s assured style. As you’d expect from Lang, there are some very impressive visuals too; especially at a séance, and in an apartment block where Neale and Carla Hilfe (Marjorie Reynolds) – she’s the girl who believes Neale’s story – are being pursued by a mob of enemy agents.
The Ministry Of Fear was a pleasant surprise to me. It doesn’t seem to be considered ‘top-shelf’ Lang. Nor does it seem to be considered ‘top-shelf’ Graham Greene either. But despite it’s lowly status, it is an extremely entertaining espionage adventure. And upon repeat viewings, it could become one of my favourites.