Year of Release: 1944 Directed by Fritz Lang. Starring Ray Milland, Marjorie Reynolds, Carl Esmond, and Hillary Brooke.
Fritz Lang crafted a remarkable atmosphere of suspense, tension, and mystery in his 1944 film noir, Ministry of Fear. The opening of the film sets the mood as the camera focuses on the swinging pendulum of a grandfather clock, underscored by Victor Young’s ominous music.
Steven Neale (Ray Milland) has been patiently watching that grandfather clock as it approaches six o’clock. Once the hour strikes, his psychiatrist enters and informs him that he is now free to leave the asylum in which he has been living for the past two years. As Neale exits, his doctor gives him one piece of advice: avoid any entanglements with the police, because that would lead to an unfortunate re-arrest.
Neale clearly intends to take this advice seriously, which leads to classic mystery complications when he inadvertently becomes involved in a Nazi espionage conspiracy. After winning a cake due to a mistaken identity at a fundraiser, he finds Nazi spies chasing and threatening him. Since the whole story is very outlandish and would make him appear insane, instead of going to the police Neale hires a bumbling detective, who arrogantly insists he is not some fraud showman “like Sherlock Holmes.” When the detective mysteriously disappears, the police suspect Neale of foul play.
Meanwhile, Neale has befriended the brother and sister (Carl Esmond and Marjorie Reynolds) who organized the fundraiser, both of whom are concerned that their charity organization is being used by the Nazis to mask a spy ring. Since they are German, having fled to England to escape the Nazis, Neale is further afraid to alert the police, because he does not wish them to be indicted on account of some of their members who have been abusing the society.
Although Ministry of Fear hits all of the expected plot points for an espionage thriller, it does so with a surprising amount of wit and nail biting tension. The identity of the Nazi mastermind remains unclear until the final climax, even if an alert viewer will narrow the identity down to one of two characters. There may or may not be a femme fatale. It is unclear whether the police can be trusted. The villains learn damning evidence about Neale’s past, which they use to manipulate him and further complicate the mystery.
Neale’s past legally compromises him without morally compromising him. The reason for his stint in the asylum and reticence to notify the police was that he was declared guilty of euthanizing his wife. He was tempted to acquiesce her request for a painless death as she was dying of cancer, but after purchasing the lethal drug he chose not to give into the temptation and kill her. However, she found the drug and administered it herself. A woefully inaccurate summary of the events by another character is twisted by the villains as a rationale for their own actions.
There is an interesting parallel between the plight of the brother and sister whom help Neale along with Lang’s own journey as a filmmaker. In 1934, Lang left Germany after running afoul of the Nazi party and emigrated to America. It is not unreasonable to speculate that the tension and aura of fear are as poignant as they are, because Lang based them on some of his own experiences.
Throughout Ministry of Fear Lang plays the uncertainty and suspense masterfully, and he does not relent until the final scene. Even the lead-up to the final confrontation is meant to deceive the viewer. This level of suspense is the primary factor which makes Ministry of Fear an effective and memorable film noir.
Content Advisory: Intense atmosphere of suspense and menace, references to a contemplation of euthanasia. Not rated.
Suggested Audience: Teens and up with discernment.
Personal Recommendation: A+