Movie Review: “Ministry of Fear” (Fritz Lang, USA 1944)

I spent much of this film’s 87-minute run time trying to figure out what exactly Lang was trying to say, but the film’s final moment made it clear: the film is an allegory for the dangers of over-consumption of junk food. Stephen Neale’s entire ordeal begins with winning a cake at a charity event and only ends when he is able to destroy that cake without consuming it, saving himself from the consumption of its excess calories. He is left with a terror of cake that extends to his wedding, saving himself from a lifetime of sugar and fat.

The Nazis represent weight gain, always chasing after Neale as soon as he gets hold of a cake, aided in their arrival by the sugar that’s represented by the double-agent spies he meets along the way–the sweet deliciousness that carries the fat into his body. . . .

Okay, so that’s not true, but it could continue on for quite a while and make a fair amount of sense for a film as oddly pointless as this one.

Fritz Lang was a genius as a filmmaker. His greatest strength was his otherworldly sense of how to use light and shadow dramatically, which is why he was able to transition from his deep, politically-aware German dramas to American film noir so successfully. (And film noir had, after all, drawn much of its visual palette from early 20th century German filmmakers like–you guessed it–Fritz Lang.) However, he was susceptible to placing plot and narrative over purpose, a problem that mars even many of his better films. And Ministry of Fear is a place where that susceptibility got to him and then some.

The film tells the story of Stephen Neale, a Londoner released from an asylum where he had been placed after mercy killing his ill wife, as he stumbles into a Nazi spy conspiracy during the London blitz. Desperate to connect with people after his release, he wanders into a small charity fair where he wins a cake in a guess-the-weight contest on his way to a London-bound train. A man sits in the compartment with him, pretending to be blind, and then steals the cake and escapes, shooting back at Neale until he is destroyed by incoming Nazi bombs. From there, Neale tries to uncover why he was in that danger.

It’s a terribly convoluted plot that’s so full of twists and turns that even the most cursory plot summary I could possibly write took a full paragraph, and the narrative is as tightly constructed as any noir of the era, which is how the film was able to fit so much story into less than an hour and a half. Lang and screenwriter Seton I. Miller deserve credit for doing an excellent job with the narrative. However, the film’s biggest issue is that it is seemingly a story without a purpose, which is a cardinal sin to my method of looking at films.

The film could be said to be about the importance of trust in a world of distrust, as Neale’s willingness to believe in Carla is essentially what saves him. But then so much of the film works against that point that it really fails to make it. It seems more sensible to me to say that it really didn’t have a point and instead was a genre exercise–a mixture of film noir and spy thriller that rather presages the development of the paranoid thriller in the ’70s.

As far as genre exercises go, what makes this film stand out from most is Lang and cinematographer Henry Sharp’s visual sense–the dramatic shadows and shafts of bright light that so define film noir have rarely been used as well and as dynamically as they were here. It’s a beautiful film, and that goes a long way toward making up for its thematic weaknesses. However, even the visuals suffer from the lack of a point, as the look ends up only enhancing atmosphere and not a point, since there is no point for them to enhance.

Nobody really has much to do as far as acting, following the noir tradition of populating the world with two-dimensional archetypes. Ray Milland’s Stephen Neale is given a backstory that would seem to give him some depth but he’s given no room to show it. He is overjoyed to be around people, then scared, and he has no other or more complicated emotions. Well, except for the usual early Hollywood emotion of immediately falling in love with any pretty blonde who crosses his path. Everyone else is just a standard archetype–the femme fatale played by Hillary Brooke, the innocent love interest played by Marjorie Reynolds, etc. Luckily, no one is so incompetent as to stand out as incapable of even playing such a two-dimensional character, but it doesn’t give the room for anyone to stand out in a good way, either.

Overall, Ministry of Fear is decent as far as a simplistic genre exercise goes, but that isn’t all that far for such a pointless picture. It’s rather a shame to see something so empty from a director with so much talent, but it happens from time to time, especially in the days of the studio system. And of course, he would soon redeem himself with the excellent The Woman in the Window (USA 1944) and the even better Scarlet Street (USA 1945).

2006 Academy Awards Review

With little time remaining in the run-up to the Academy Awards and the film industry currently in the throes of its worst season, filled with movies not big enough for summer and not good enough for end-of-year releases, I wanted to try writing sort of a fun post looking back at a past Oscar year. After Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, I thought 2006 was as good a year as any.

I’m going to go through most of the major categories, list the winners and nominees, and then say what my picks would be. Note that while I am comfortable with non-American films, I am in fact American and speak only English, so there is undoubtedly going to be a bias throughout.

An Overview of 2005 in Movies

As is often the case, the box office in 2005 was dominated by big-budget franchises: Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith (George Lucas, USA 2005), The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe (Andrew Adamson, USA/UK 2005), Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Mike Newell, UK/USA 2005), and Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, USA/UK 2005) all topped $200 million. They were joined by The War of the Worlds (Steven Spielberg, USA 2005), King Kong (Peter Jackson, New Zealand/USA/Germany 2005), Wedding Crashers (David Dobkin, USA 2005), and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Tim Burton, USA/UK 2005). That is probably the last time any of these films will be mentioned, for obvious reasons.

Many of these films have faded away—the Chronicles of Narnia series thankfully fizzled quickly, King Kong and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory proved to be unmemorable to pretty much anyone. As a result, the current list of “most popular” films of the year on the IMDb reads quite differently: Capote (Bennett Miller, USA/Canada 2005), Batman Begins, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Sin City (Frank Miller/Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino, USA 2005), Pride and Prejudice (Joe Wright, France/UK/USA 2005), V for Vendetta (James McTeigue, USA/UK/Germany 2005), Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith, and Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, USA/Canada 2005) are the frontrunners there.

However, quietly, it was actually an excellent year for films. They just weren’t the most popular ones. That will become very clear as we journey through the awards (And one is very clear from the title of the blog!), so let us begin.

One note: I do not like the bizarre segregation between the sexes in the acting awards. It’s really an antiquated notion. However, it is rather difficult to split up the performances in a different way that makes sense, so I’m going to keep that division in place for this post, though I will change one other spot.

Best Male Actor in a Supporting Role

Actual Nominees (Winner in bold): George Clooney-Syriana (Stephen Gaghan, USA 2005), Jake Gyllenhaal-Brokeback Mountain, Paul Giamatti-Cinderella Man (Ron Howard, USA 2005), Matt Dillon-Crash (Paul Haggis, USA 2004), William Hurt-A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, USA/Germany 2005)

My Nominees (Pick in bold): Ed Harris-A History of Violence, William H. Macy-Thank You for Smoking (Jason Reitman, USA 2005), Kevin Bacon-Where the Truth Lies (Atom Egoyan, Canada/UK 2005), Cillian Murphy-Red Eye (Wes Craven, USA 2005), Colin Firth-Where the Truth Lies

Okay, maybe it’s a weird pick, but seriously tell me that Clooney’s performance in Syriana (which is a fine performance and I could easily have put here instead of either Cillian Murphy or Ed Harris) is anywhere near as believable and memorable as Macy’s selfish crusader Senator Finistirre in Thank You for Smoking or Bacon’s sleazy former lounge singer in Where the Truth Lies. Thank You for Smoking’s triumphant acting is largely the result of brilliant casting, but Macy actually has some work to do to keep his character from becoming a cartoon, and he did it remarkably well.

Clooney won because of the incredible tidal wave of pro-Clooney sentiment that washed over the world that year—he was going to win something, and giving him a more-deserved Best Director nod apparently would have been going too far. Paul Giamatti and William Hurt were classic legacy nominations—nominated because they’re great actors rather than anything about their particular performances. Gyllenhaal was a lead performance, no matter what the Oscars say.

Best Female Actor in a Supporting Role

Actual Nominees: Rachel Weisz-The Constant Gardener (Fernando Meirelles, UK/Germany/USA/China 2005), Michelle Williams-Brokeback Mountain, Catherine Keener-Capote, Amy Adams-Junebug (Phil Morrison, USA 2005), Frances McDormand-North Country (Niki Caro, USA 2005)

My Nominees: Maria Bello-A History of Violence, Nora Zehetner-Brick (Rian Johnson, USA 2005), Scarlett Johansson-Match Point (Woody Allen, UK/Russia/Ireland 2005), Michelle Williams-Brokeback Mountain, Rachel Weisz-The Constant Gardener

Maria Bello is one of the best actors on the planet, and she’s never gotten her due. A History of Violence got shafted all the way around, and she was amazing. I wouldn’t argue too strenuously on this one, though—I feel like any of Williams, Weisz, Bello, Zehetner, or Johansson was a fine pick, and it’s really splitting hairs to differentiate them. And I’m probably overrating Zehetner for affecting the sexiest voice in history. Emma Watson could have been a nominee as well.

Best Female Actor in a Leading Role

Actual Nominees: Reese Witherspoon-Walk the Line (James Mangold, USA/Germany 2005), Judi Dench-Mrs. Henderson Presents (Stephen Friers, UK/USA 2005), Charlize Theron-North Country, Keira Knightley-Pride & Prejudice (Joe Wright, France/UK/USA 2005), Felicity Huffman-Transamerica (Duncan Tucker, USA 2005)

My Nominees: Naomi Watts-Stay (Marc Forster, USA 2005), Rachel McAdams-Red Eye, Ziyi Zhang-Memoirs of a Geisha (Rob Marshall, USA 2005), Felicity Huffman-Transamerica

This is a weird category, because it’s so full of actors and names who have seemingly disappeared since. Who remembers when Charlize Theron was supposed to be the greatest young female actor in the world or  Keira Knightley was supposed to have actual talent?  Who remembers Transamerica? Who ever watched Mrs. Henderson Presents in the first place?

Rob Marshall made two average films back-to-back. The first, because it was a musical with a bunch of stars in the cast, got a ton of attention. The second, while at least as good a film, got none at all. I’m not going to say that everyone should have seen Memoirs of a Geisha—it was okay but nothing special—but Ziyi Zhang was incredible. She had a complex, layered role and performed it absolutely perfectly. Somehow, her career in the US essentially stopped at this point, but that doesn’t diminish just how good she was in this film. I only nominated four because I could not come up with another lead female performance that was generally Oscar-caliber. It was a bad year in this category, unfortunately.

Best Male Actor in a Leading Role

Actual Nominees: Philip Seymour Hoffman-Capote, Heath Ledger-Brokeback Mountain, David Strathairn-Good Night, and Good Luck., Terrence Howard-Hustle & Flow (Craig Brewer, USA 2005), Joaquin Phoenix-Walk the Line

My Nominees: Joseph Gordon-Levitt-Brick, David Strathairn-Good Night, and Good Luck., Viggo Mortensen-A History of Violence, Heath Ledger-Brokeback Mountain, Philip Seymour Hoffman-Capote

I only changed out two of the nominees, but frankly I think that Gordon-Levitt and Mortensen were the two strongest performances of the year. For all the praise I just heaped on Ziyi Zhang, Viggo Mortensen was in an entirely different category, producing one of the finest performances I have ever seen in a film. It’s not just that he has to play essentially two parts or the way his voice and accent suddenly changes when he goes from “Tom” to “Joey,” it’s the way his entire demeanor and movement changes as well, and the way he allows “Joey” to peek through “Tom” early on and “Tom” to peek through “Joey” later, making it clear that both personas are in fact parts of the same man. It’s the way that Cronenberg is able to get away with using so little establishing dialogue because Mortensen is able to establish his character so fully on his own. Few performances have ever been as good as this one, and it’s frankly a crime that it wasn’t even nominated in reality.

This isn’t to denigrate Hoffman’s performance, which was a fine, usually Oscar-worthy performance. It was sort of like being Miguel Cabrera in 2013: that’s usually enough for MVP, but Mike Trout was doing something unbelievable out in Los Angeles. (Yes, I know Cabrera actually won, but while I’m pretending that I get to decide the Oscars, I’m going to also pretend I pick the AL MVP.)

Best Picture/Best Director

First, a note: It is an absolute absurdity to separate these two categories. The director is the artist in charge of the film and the finished product is charged to him/her. The best director is the person who made the best film, and the best film is the one that was made best. The Academy Awards separate them for political reasons, but I don’t have to. I’m also going to follow in the spirit of the more recent Best Picture rule and nominate every film that I think was a worthy nominee (essentially, an 8/10 film or better).

Actual Nominees (Director): Ang Lee-Brokeback Mountain, Bennett Miller-Capote, Paul Haggis-Crash, George Clooney-Good Night, and Good Luck., Steven Spielberg-Munich

Actual Nominees (Picture): Crash, Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Good Night, and Good Luck., Munich

My Nominees: Match Point, A History of Violence, Thank You for Smoking, Brick, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (Alex Gibney, USA 2005), Cache (Michael Haneke, France/Austria/Germany/Italy/USA 2005), Where the Truth Lies, Good Night, and Good Luck., The Interpreter (Sydney Pollack, UK/USA/France/Germany 2005)

Brokeback Mountain, Crash, and Munich were all examples of Holocaust Movie Syndrome. Brokeback Mountain and Munich were decent films that got attention because of a mix of subject and star power (Spielberg being the star power for the latter) while Crash was a horrible abomination that should never have been seen. I think Capote was just getting nominated because of Hoffman, because not only did I not think it was anything special, but neither did anyone else.

However, meanwhile, there were a ton of truly great films out that year that got little attention.

Anyone (There might be someone, somewhere.) who can recognize the title of this blog would know that Brick would at least be in contention for me. Rian Johnson crafted a beautiful neo-noir set in a modern high school that managed to reimagine the visual cues of noir without giving up any of its other strengths. The dialogue is sharp and smart, the acting is almost universally excellent (Emilie de Ravin is really the lone exception.), and the film just looks amazing. I honestly could easily take any of Match Point, A History of Violence, Brick, or Thank You for Smoking, but there is a reason I used a line from Brick for the blog title.

Woody Allen has always been a genius as a filmmaker, but Match Point represented a turning point—the arrival of a mature, confident Allen who still had some fresh ideas. It’s a completely serious rumination on the nature of justice and conscience that borrowed more than a little from Crime and Punishment but updated it so smartly that it’s easy enough not to recognize the story.

A History of Violence was a dark, smart film about a man who cannot escape the violence within himself that ends with a Flannery O’Connor like plea for grace from the family that has at different points both accepted and rejected him. The acting is incredible, and Cronenberg imbues the film with an absolutely pitch-perfect visual atmosphere for every single second.

Thank You for Smoking isn’t about the tobacco industry. It’s not a send-up of the battles between Congress and “Big Tobacco” in the ‘90s. It’s not even about “responsibility,” as Nick Naylor seems to suggest at the end. It’s a film about argument, and it understands argument far better than most people. Hell, it deserves a nomination just for the scene where Nick is explaining debate to Joey, which is the absolute heart of a nearly perfect film.

Where the Truth Lies deserves some special notice for its presence in the same year as Brokeback Mountain. While the latter was supposedly showing us how far society had come, the former was being given an NC-17 that both Egoyan and Bacon suggested was due to homophobia on the MPAA review board. Some critics (and I) said that the way that Gyllenhaal and Ledger went about “proving their masculinity” after Brokeback Mountain’s release was evidence that we hadn’t come as far as many suggested, but Where the Truth Lies may have been an even stronger indictment of American society’s attitude about homosexuality. It didn’t get much attention because it ended up being released unrated and so it disappeared from view, even though it was an excellent film.

Why are documentaries never nominated for Best Picture? I suppose one could argue that they should be judged by such different criteria that they shouldn’t be, but they are eligible (and indeed have been nominated, albeit very rarely), so that doesn’t seem to be the actual reason. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room may be the best documentary I’ve ever seen—explaining a very complex situation so fully that a lay person can understand it and being very entertaining along the way.

For anyone who wonders, I’m skipping the writing awards because those really should be given based on the screenplay, not based on what appears on screen. I don’t have access to those screenplays, so I cannot fairly judge them.