Ministry of Fear (1944)

2010 #70
Fritz Lang | 83 mins | TV | PG

Ministry of FearI like cake. It’s all soft and sweet and tasty. But I don’t like cake as much as Stephen Neale, the protagonist of Ministry of Fear.

Neale (played by Ray Milland) likes cake so much that, as soon as he’s released from an asylum at the film’s start, he goes almost directly to a nearby fête to win a cake. And win it he does… though as he leaves with his prize, he’s told he didn’t win it after all. But Neale loves cake so much that he pays them off so he can keep it. Then he gets on a train to London — and he loves cake so much, he can’t resist tucking in straight away. At least he’s kind enough to give a piece to the blind man who shares the car with him. Except the blind man whacks Neale over the head, steals the cake and jumps off the (fortunately, stationary) train with it. Not because he loves cake too, but we’ll come to that.

But the blind man — who isn’t actually blind, as you may have guessed — hasn’t counted on just how much Neale loves cake. He jumps off the train too, giving chase. The not-blind blind man shoots at him, but that’s not enough to deter Neale from cake. It’s only when a Nazi bomb drops on the cake, destroying it (and the not-blind blind man) that Neale finally gives up. And even then he goes back to look for the cake later in the film.

I think he's about to cut the cake...Ministry of Fear isn’t really about cake, but the opening 20 minutes or so plays out more or less as above and it is rather amusing. Less amusing — and, in fact, part of the film’s biggest problem — is a ‘humorous’ epilogue that returns to the cake theme. I found it hilariously funny, but unfortunately for all the wrong reasons. The other part of the problem is the abrupt ending that immediately precedes this brief coda. On the bright side, everything is resolved and you can imagine the post-climax resolution scene for yourself, but it still leaves the tale’s telling cut short.

To say too much about what Ministry of Fear is actually about would ruin it, which I don’t want to do because in fact it’s a great twisty little thriller, a rather Hitchcockian ‘wrong man’ tale with a baked MacGuffin. You might need a decent suspension of disbelief to get through it, as Neale races round London trying to find out the truth behind the activities of a wartime charity and its army of little old dears, but doing so rewards with a tale where you can never be sure who is on whose side and where any character will end up.

Director Fritz Lang brings his customary expertise to proceedings, with several shots and sequences worthy of appreciation in their own right. Nazi drone, perhapsThe train cake theft and chase, for instance, could be thoroughly laughable thanks to the cake element and what’s clearly a studio-built wood/wasteland, but it’s atmospherically shot and, in its main burst of genius, scored only by the drone of a Nazi air raid taking place overhead. It makes for a more tense and effective soundtrack than most musical scores manage.

In spite of the potentially laughable opening and the need to suspend one’s disbelief — or, perhaps, because of it — Ministry of Fear is a most enjoyable wartime film noir in a Hitchockian mould.

4 out of 5

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