A man alone in a room, waiting in the gloom, unnervingly still, watching the clock on the wall. On the wall behind the man, the man’s shadow hovers close, doubling him, looming, succubus-like, ready to follow the man when, once the clock strikes six, he rises from that chair and leaves Lembridge Asylum.
What story shall we tell? One of the truly delicious things about the opening moments of Ministry of Fear (1944) is that it’s so saturated with forbidding mood and transfixing ambiguity that it seems it could go anywhere, could become any number of stories. The story that it does become, one of geopolitical intrigue, deadly pursuit, paranoia, betrayal, mystery pastry, and guilt, is dizzyingly dense with plot—and with plots—and, to my eyes and ears, a deeply satisfying, dream-like suspense film. Certain elements are very much of the time, with Nazis aplenty, yet the film feels out of time, of any time—its eeriness is timeless. Oddly enough, you get the impression that this timelessness, this careful drawing upon anxiogenic symbols from the collective unconscious, is precisely what Graham Greene, whose novel provided the film with its source material, didn’t like. And he claimed that Fritz Lang, the film’s director, didn’t like it either. Perhaps because, at that time, it seemed so important to make Ministry of Fear, like Lang’s Man Hunt (1941) and Hangmen Also Die (1943), an explicitly anti-Nazi picture—Lang was a self-exiled German—and the film’s Nazis simply weren’t Nazi enough: no secret chambers adorned with swastika flags or giant portraits of the Führer, no maniacal speeches about world domination. Fair enough, I suppose. But what we have in the place of a rallying cry for the Allies is a wildly evocative, exquisitely designed, utterly entertaining nightmare. The film is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion.
That man in the room is Stephen Neale. One of the first people he encounters is a fortune-teller, who seems to be waiting for him. She wants to talk about the women in his past, something that makes him very uncomfortable—Neale did time in Lembridge after being found guilty of “mercy killing” his ailing wife. Neale’s played by Ray Milland, one of those rare stars who could easily be the hero or the heavy, whose every gesture is perfectly gauged so as to draw us in and alternately earn our sympathies and prompt us to question his reliability. Against the advice of his doctor, Neale opts to head straight to London upon release. A bustling city, and a place upon which bombs could fall at any moment—talk about ominous. Everything in Ministry of Fear is ominous, from the weird din of boisterous laughter that Neale finds in certain crowds to the séance in which the medium speaks directly to him, from the perpetual fog to the sculpted shrubbery to the ladies large-brimmed translucent hats. Lang, as responsible for ushering German expressionism into Hollywood cinema as anyone, accents the unease by keeping the characters most often in the middle distance (that trademark dearth of point-of-view), and by not relying on the musical score in key moments of tension. So many of the film’s scenes are so compellingly strange: a blind man cane-tapping his way through a curtain of steam; two grown men eating cake without plates or cutlery on a train; a carpet of Englishmen sleeping on the floor of a tube station bomb shelter; a tailor (Dan Duryea) dialing a telephone with a giant pair of scissors. Every moment promises something new, some development that might change the course of everything. It’s almost surreal. But haven’t you had days like this?