Posted by Dave G
I’m a big fan of Ray Milland. He may not have had the greatest range in the world as a leading man, but he had a certain class, deportment, and an easy debonair charm - like a watered-down Cary Grant sans comic timing. Perhaps the most appealing thing about Milland is his role in "Dial M for Murder" – if HE can end up married to Grace Kelly, there’s hope for us all.
Milland is on solid form in Fritz Lang’s "Ministry of Fear" (from the novel by Graham Greene). The setting is wartime England, and Stephen Neale (Milland) has just been released from an asylum. Determined to reintegrate into society, Neale heads to the local railway station, but before the train to London can arrive, he’s sidetracked by an innocent-looking village fete. It starts out as the stereotypical old-fashioned English event, but gradually evolves into something more sinister: the little old ladies are eager for Neale to visit the fortune teller; she tells him the correct weight to bet at the win-the-cake stall; then shortly after Neale wins it, a surly Dan Duryea turns up, and the little old ladies are suddenly desperate to get their prize back. Thus begins possibly the only film noir in which the MacGuffin is a homemade cake - and it's made with eggs, you know …
After an exciting, vividly executed footchase and gunfight in the countryside during a German bombing raid, Neale finds himself back in London, and sets about investigating the mysterious group responsible for organizing that strange village fete and nearly getting him killed. Soon he finds himself accused of murder, and plunged into a swirling mystery of deception, Nazi agents and war secrets, all played out among the day-to-day dangers of the Blitz.
Lang creates a lingering sense of dread throughout, as Neale moves alone through the foggy, bombed-out streets of London, uncovering a secret enemy network hidden beneath the veneer of respectable society. He can’t approach the police, because of his criminal record, and everyone he meets is a potential enemy - even the beautiful and resourceful Carla Hilfe (Marjorie Reynolds), who becomes his chief ally. I liked the way her character was written; even as Neale grew closer to her, I wasn’t quite sure where her true allegiances lay.
The psychological state of Milland’s character is hinted at from the outset at the asylum, but only explored in a couple of scenes later on; chiefly that in which Neale, caught in an air-raid and forced to a shelter with Carla, confesses the reason for his incarceration in an asylum: his terminally ill wife committed suicide with poison that Neale had reluctantly bought. Under the circumstances, he was sent to an asylum instead of prison, and is clearly still haunted by the incident. Beyond this, we don’t get a great deal more insight into his psyche – something which might add depth to the movie. This was one of the few aspects of the film I found disappointing – another being the tacked-on, utterly superficial ‘happy ending’ scene which closes it.
Those caveats aside, I found this to be top-notch entertainment, with many memorable scenes, including a creepy, highly atmospheric fake sťance. It’s well-played by the principal cast – including that deliciously slimy villain Dan Duryea, whose role here is unfortunately limited. Audiences would have to wait until "Woman in the Window" and "Scarlet Street" for Lang to make full use of Duryea’s talents.
Posted 19th June 2006