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).