Ray Milland, Hillary Brooke, and Marjorie Reynolds in Ministry of Fear (1944)


(director: Fritz Lang; screenwriters: Seton I. Miller/from the novel by Graham Greene; cinematographer: Henry Sharp; editor: Archie Marshek; cast: Ray Milland (Stephen Neale), Marjorie Reynolds (Carla Hilfe), Dan Duryea (Cost/Travers), Carl Esmond (Willi Hilfe), Hillary Brooke (The Second Mrs. Bellaire), Percy Waram (Inspector Prentice), Alan Napier (Dr. Forrester), Erskine Sanford (Mr. Rennit), Thomas Louden (Mr. Newland), Eustace Wyatt (Blind Man); Runtime: 86; Paramount; 1944)
“Has an exciting plot and is properly atmospheric despite its cheap studio sets.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Warning: spoilers throughout review.

Fritz Lang adapts Graham Greene’s spy novel that is set during WW11 in a London that is experiencing blackouts. It has an exciting plot and is properly atmospheric despite its cheap studio sets. The only flaw was in the unnecessary ending, where the love-smitten hero becomes foolishly heroic instead of letting the police do their job.

Stephen Neale is released from a prison insane asylum after spending two years there for a mercy killing of his very sick wife, which she actually did herself. Happy to be free and to be going back to London by rail, he stops off at a charity event run by an organization called ‘Mothers of the Free Nations.’ After seeing a clairvoyant, he’s told by her the exact weight of a cake being given to the one who comes closest to guessing its weight and is told that it’s important for him get the cake. The cake was meant for a Nazi spy, as it contains microfilm of a map showing where the British plan to invade Europe. When he wins it, even though he has no idea what it contains, he refuses to give it up as another couple comes to claim it.

This leads to the Nazi spy ring chasing Stephen, as his cake is stolen on the train by someone acting the part of a blind man. He fails to kill Stephen as he jumps from the train and fires at him, but an airplane bomb kills him when he tries to cross a field while escaping.

In Stephen’s hotel room his luggage is ransacked, which causes him to hire a private detective, Mr. Rennit (Sanford), to follow him and find out why the cake is so valuable. But the detective is discovered and murdered by the Nazis.

Stephen retraces his steps by going to the charity group to get the address of the fortune teller. The group is headed by a brother and sister team of Austrian refugees, Willi and Carla Hilfe (Carl Esmond & Marjorie Reynolds). Stephen is taken by Willi to meet the fortune teller, but she’s not the same one he went to, even though she has the same name. She tells him there was a sub for her while she took a break and invites him to attend a seance, and during that event he’s spooked that the fortune teller knows about his past crime. During the darkness a shot is fired killing Mr. Cost (Duryea), and he’s accused of killing the same man who tried to claim the cake was his. Rather than try to explain this to the police and concerned because of his past prison record, he talks Willi into letting him escape. He then meets the attractive Carla, someone he has fallen in love with, and she hides him in the house of a bookseller, Mr. Newland (Louden).

Soon Stephen starts recalling those at the seance and he becomes suspicious of a Dr. Forrester (Napier), a psychiatrist who writes propaganda articles and works for the Ministry of Home Security, and whose book he spots in his hideout.

When Stephen is asked by Newland to deliver a package of books to Dr. Forrester’ hotel room, a bomb is in the package that goes off almost killing him and Carla. When he wakes up, he’s alone and being questioned by Scotland Yard Inspector Prentice (Waram). Thinking he’s being held for the murder of Cost, he’s told no such murder was reported. He has a hard time convincing the inspector he isn’t a nut, but gets him to go to the site of the bomb crater where the blind man was killed. There they find the cake with the microfilm.

The finale is an action-packed scene of the chasing down of the Nazi spy ring. But, it seemed anti-climactic when compared to the tight story that preceded it.

The sinister film noir mood is established early on. Milland is the innocent who has no luck convincing society officials that he is indeed innocent. He is released from one nightmare and quickly falls into another. Duryea, who reappears from the dead as a fancy Saville Row tailor, menacingly waves a large tailor’s scissors at Milland. The tailor uses it to dial the number of his Nazi boss to warn of the police.