Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Ministry of Fear

Ministry of Fear (Fritz Lang, 1944) So, here's the joke: a man walks out of an insane asylum and finds the world is crazier than he is.  

But, then, it usually is in Lang's films.  The forces of evil or nature are such that we don't stand a chance unless our own better natures or our just plain "stick-to-it-ive-ness" allows us to survive and move through.  And in Lang's directorial vision, the film frame is as much a trap as anything else, one that can be violated by unseen dangers that will drop into frame as if materialized by a malicious God out of nowhere to threaten those within it.

Ministry of Fear, based on a Graham Greene novel published the previous year, follows the dogged tracks of Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) as, having been released from Lembridge Asylum, he awaits a train to London and decides to pass the time at a charity fĂȘte supporting "The Mothers of Free Nations" where there is a booth for guessing the weights of cakes.  After dropping a shilling on a wrong guess, his next stop is a fortune teller's booth, where he's astonished to find the woman giving him the exact weight of one of the cakes at the booth across the way.  Neale can't resist using his knowledge (and testing the medium's prediction) and is astonished to find that he's guessed correctly and won.  

Everything's a little off-kilter in Fritz Lang's world.

Off to his train he goes, not knowing that his taking the cake has caused a commotion back at the tents and exhibits.  The cake has "gone" to the wrong man, intended for another (Dan Duryea).  On the train, Neale's cabin-mate is a blind man to whom he offers a slice.  But, Neale is astonished to find that instead of eating his portion, he's crumbling it in his hands.  The blind man is no blind man, and he attacks Neale, steals the cake and jumps off the train, pursued by Neale.  But it is the time of the Blitz, and as the two chase through a field in the night, bombs begin dropping, targetting their train.

Okay.  We'll stop there.  But, already, things are not what they seem, people are not who they say they are, and nobody can be trusted...not even a damn pastry.  It's not a cake, at all.  It's a MacGuffin, the movie-making slang for the object that the players in a movie seek (and has a sliding scale of relevance and importance*). 

The subsequent fandango has Neale involved with "The Mothers of Free Nations," a seance, dodging bullets with the police and secret service, and all sorts who pretend to be something they're not.  It's enough to drive a sane man crazy—if one hadn't already left an asylum.  That time in crazy-land might actually have steeled Neale for his subsequent adventure, which is no piece of cake.  Lang was the master of the paranoid thriller (at least until Alan J. Pakula teamed up with Gordon Willis in the post-Watergate 70's) and his ordinary man caught in the extraordinary is the very DNA of a Hitchcock thriller—in fact, Ministry of Fear might have been one of those that "got away" from The Master of Suspense.  With its seances, wolves in bureaucratic clothing and things that go boom in the night, all it needs is a national monument to be pure Hitchcock.  It's a fun, terrible ride, well worth seeking out.


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