Ministry of Fear

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“Marked for death! Because he knew the world’s most dangerous secret”

So went the breathlessly worded ad tagline, plastered across the image of a frenzied looking Ray Milland. With such a teaser, and that truly amazing title–which was probably that much more meaningful to those familiar with parliamentary government– who wouldn’t be excited to see this spy thriller?

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Director Fritz Lang was initially eager to make this 1944 adaptation of the Graham Greene novel, but lost some zeal once his dream casting pick was nixed. Lang wanted Bavarian actor Tonio Selwart, who had starred in Lang’s Hangmen Also Die. He ended up with Ray Milland, plus Marjorie Reynolds, Dan Duryea, Carl Esmond and Hillary Brooke, hardly a disappointing cast by any standard, and the director’s misgivings didn’t hurt the film. He managed to turn the twisted, breakneck story into a highly gripping spy thriller. The movie opens with Milland sitting in a dark room dominated by the sound of a ticking clock and a swinging pendulum (fraught with significance to be revealed later in the plot). Finally someone enters the room, and tells Milland he is free to leave what turns out to be an asylum. Little does he know, the craziness he’s about to encounter on the outside will make the asylum seem a sane refuge by comparison. When told his train is late, Milland kills time by going to a nearby fairground and charity bazaar. There, offered as a prize is that rarest of wartime items, a cake made with real rationed eggs, and it is to be awarded to the contestant who comes closest to guessing the cake’s weight. What a break—the fair’s fortune teller tells Milland the cake’s weight, and he wins it, though not without fending off a latecomer who claims to have guessed more closely. On the train, Milland encounters a man making the most annoying (but meaningful!) tapping noise with his cane, and when Milland offers him a piece of cake, the man proceeds to mush through the slice as if looking for something (hint: he is!), then steals the whole cake (you didn’t think it was just a cake, did you?). Milland chases the cake thief through the countryside during a German Blitz bombing, but to no avail.

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The plot unfurls, leading Milland to places that at first seem sidetrack tangents but turn out to be part of a larger, sinister hidden agenda. There’s a séance where he is framed for the murder of a boozy private eye (Erskine Sanford), and Milland finds safety with Marjorie Reynolds, and we learn the significance of the previously mentioned clock ticking and cane tapping. Turns out Milland had a sick wife for whom he bought poison, intending a mercy killing, but could not bring himself to do the actual deed. However, once she took poison herself, he sat by her bedside and watched her die, all the while watching a ticking clock’s swinging pendulum. When Milland recognizes a Doctor Forrester (Alan Napier) from the séance as the author of a book on Nazism, he is led to an encounter with the Doctor’s tailor, none other than Dan Duryea, who has already made an appearance. Duryea, great as always, makes the most of what is easily the most impressive pair of scissors in all filmdom. This twisted tale is eventually untangled by a Scotland Yard detective who actually believes Milland, and we learn that the cake had hidden inside it a valuable microfilm. These nonstop events and large cast are much easier to follow than I’ve made them sound here, and Lang’s deft handling makes things appropriately menacing and surreal with his usual knack for creating striking imagery and dark style. This movie’s often been called one of the best that Hitchcock never made and I agree; it’s certainly one of the most fun and twisty thrillers Lang did make.

Leading lady Marjorie Reynolds made many movies through the 40’s and 50’s and found her greatest fame on TV with William Bendix in The Life of Riley. She started out as Marjorie Goodspeed, then, frustrated at the constant mispronunciations, tried on for size the more pedestrian Marjorie Moore, until she married Sam Goldwyn’s casting director Jack Reynolds and took his name in 1937. Her parents had intended for their Idaho-born daughter to be an opera singer, and her dancing and singing talents were her entrée into chorus girl roles which led to many B leads, mostly in westerns. She finally got her break when she appeared with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire in Holiday Inn and Dixie, landing a seven year contract with Paramount. As she got older, Marjorie again worked in commercials; when Ministry of Fear was released, she was visible in a campaign of Jergens print ads, embracing manly men with her “alluring” moisturized hands.

Some other trivia: the nameless blind man in the movie was played in an uncredited role by Eustace Wyatt, who died soon after shooting. Lang, desperate for realism, and worried that the extreme close ups would have revealed any cosmetics or fakery, had opaque contacts made for Wyatt, which totally blinded the actor and had him groping and stumbling around for real–now that’s method. And you can’t possibly watch the film without knowing this vital fact–the leading men were all tall. Ray Milland, Carl Esmond (playing Marjorie Reynolds’s brother) and Percy Waram were all around 6’1/2” and 6’1”, but they were all in Alan Napier’s shadow, for he stood at a towering 6’6”. Napier also wins whatever award they give for “least degrees of separation between completely different types of people”. Napier was the cousin of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, and Napier’s step-grandson Brian Forster was on The Partridge Family TV series. And I mustn’t neglect to mention that nugget of pop culture knowledge, namely that Napier was known to a whole generation as Bruce Wayne’s tall butler, Alfred Pennyworth.

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a version of this was previously published in THE DARK PAGES newsletter for film noir fans; click here to check out the latest issues

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7 thoughts on “Ministry of Fear”

  1. Kristina, MINISTRY OF FEAR has long been a favorite here at Team Bartilucci HQ, and I totally enjoyed it, from cakes to seances to well-meant mercy-killing, to sleepovers in the Underground, to Dan Durya’s scary scissors and much more! You may never think of of the word “CAKE?!” quite the same way ever again 😀 Great fun, my friend!

    1. well I recall your post on it with the great gifs 🙂 I really enjoy the twists, even though they’re tough to describe. Fab cast too, no wonder Duryea was a Lang fave.

      1. Aw, thanks a million, Kristina! It’s been such a long time since watched it again, so thanks a million for the blast from the past! 😀 Thanks, my friend, and have a swell day of noir and excitement!

    1. Lots of fun, everyone’s great, I love Milland a lot, the plot is so weird, and Duryea always rocks it. You should get one of those wheelie ladders!

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