Director: Fritz Lang
Starring: Ray Milland, Marjorie Reynolds
Fortune tellers, microfilm hidden inside cake, murders at seances, secret Nazi spy rings - filmmakers working during WWII had a lot at their disposal with when it came to putting together their thrillers. Fritz Lang's Ministry of Fear features all those elements and more as it tells a classic "wrong man" tale that leans heavily on Lang's experience as one of the premiere Expressionist filmmakers and in the end reaches (without quite grasping) for the sort of sweeping romantic coda that Lang's contemporary, Alfred Hitchcock, would perfect in films like To Catch a Thief and North By Northwest. While not one of Lang's best films (though, in fairness, his best sets the bar pretty high), Ministry of Fear is a serviceable thriller and makes for a highly entertaining watch.
Ray Milland stars as Stephen Neale, who begins the story being released from the Lembridge Asylum. Eager to be around people and the normal rhythms of everyday life again, Neale intends to go to London but is waylaid on his way to catch his train by a charity fair put on by the Mothers of Free Nations. Neale decides to stop in at the fair and, after entering a contest where participants guess the weight of a cake with the winner taking the pastry, he's strongly urged to have his palm read by Mrs. Bellane (Aminta Dyne). When he does, she speaks to him cryptically and tells him to enter the draw for the cake again, this time with a guess of 4 pounds, 15 ounces. Though somewhat put off by Mrs. Bellane's bizarre behavior towards him, Neale does what she suggests and is rewarded with the cake. Moments later, however, a man jumps out of a car and rushes into the tent where the palm readings are being done and, as Neale is leaving, he's stopped and informed that, in fact, he did not correctly guess the weight of the cake, but that the man who just saw Mrs. Bellane did. Undeterred (and unable to read the atmosphere in the room), when the "correct" weight of the cake is revealed, Neale happily points out that he's still the winner as a result of his original guess and makes his way to the train, cake in hand. It's only once he's on the train, and joined by a man who is seemingly blind, that Neale seems to begin to realize that the cake has some particular importance that he doesn't quite understand, though he gets the picture once the train stops during an air raid and the "blind" man bashes him over the head with his cane, steals the cake, and sets off across the field that is currently being bombarded. Neale gives chase but the man is ultimately killed by a bomb, and Neale then carries on to London as planned.
In London, things only get stranger. Neale hires a private investigator to find out more about the Mothers of Free Nations and, in the process, meets Willi (Carl Esmond) and Carla (Marjorie Reynolds), refugees from Austria who run the charity. When Willi takes Neale to Mrs. Bellane's London residence, Neale is shocked by how much her appearance is changed now that she's not in costume for the palm reading, but he's even more shocked when he agrees to stay for the seance she's hosting and is accused by a disembodied voice of having poisoned her just before a shot rings out and one of the other guests ends up dead. With everyone looking to him as if he's guilty, Neale flees with Willi's help and then hides out with help from Carla as he tries to figure out just what it is that he's stumbled into. With the evidence mounting, it becomes clear to Neale that the Mothers of Free Nations is a front for a Nazi spy ring. The only questions are, who can he trust now that he knows this? And how can he get out of it with his life?
As directed by Lang with a handy assist from cinematographer Henry Sharp, Ministry of Fear immediately plunges into the "Fear" part of its title through its evocative and sinister use of shadow, which casts the story in the effective tone of a nightmare that Neale cannot escape from. From the opening scene where he sits alone, watching the clock tick towards the final moment of his captivity, to the tense sequence when he gets onto his train to London and can hear someone approaching his compartment slowly and can see their shadow slowly creeping up to it, Lang wastes no time in pushing the audience as close to the edge of paranoia and suspicion as Neale. Even though Neale is trying his utmost to be happy and optimistic in these opening scenes, there's a palpable sense of unease right from the start which only grows as Neale (and by extension the audience) is forced to question whether what he thinks is going on really is going on, or whether the mental health issues which resulted in him being committed are now making him unduly insecure. Is it really that everyone at the fair is regarding him strangely after he claims the cake as his prize, or is it just his imagination that the atmosphere around him suddenly turns cold? Ministry of Fear being the sort of movie that it is, it quickly becomes apparent that he's very much in the right that there's something going on, but the film is nevertheless able to create this mood of unease at the beginning where you're left to question whether this might just be Neale's perception even as it moves itself towards familiar thriller/noir beats.
In the lead role, Milland (who would win an Oscar the following year for his performance in The Lost Weekend) delivers a nicely modulated performance as a man who is sensitive to the fact that he may not be seeing things clearly and who remains scarred by the events of his past which resulted in him being committed in the first place. That said, while Milland's performance is good, Lang's direction is great, and Sharp's cinematography brings an effective moodiness to the piece, the screenplay is kind of silly and the final scene, which takes the heretofore serious tone of the film and tosses it out the window in favor of a lighthearted exchange which feels like it belongs in an entirely different movie, is bad. Ministry of Fear has enough good elements to keep it from ever being "bad," but its lesser elements certainly prevent it from being considered in the same company as the timeless classics of film noir's most robust period.