What if an episode of Mission: Impossible began with someone other than Jim Phelps inadvertently saying the secret code-phrase, and getting drafted into an adventure he’s unprepared to endure? That’s what happens to Ray Milland at the start of director Fritz Lang and screenwriter Seton I. Miller’s 1944 adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel The Ministry Of Fear. Milland visits a fair sponsored by “Mothers Of Free Nations,” and there he happens to visit a fortune-teller, who suggests that he try to win a cake by guessing a particular weight that she gives to him. Later that night, on a train to London, Milland gets bopped over the head and has his cake stolen by a man pretending to be blind, which prompts Milland to investigate this whole crazy MOFN fair when he arrives in the city. But because Milland just got released from an asylum, he has a hard time convincing people that his paranoia is justified, rather than just a case of a madman having trouble adjusting to a world at war.
In 1944, Hollywood was about to plunge into the heyday of film noir, but Lang had been laying the groundwork for the genre since his early years in Germany, where he brought an expressionistic visual style to sophisticated crime sagas. Lang carried that vibe over to his work in America in the ’30s and early ’40s, making dark, intense movies about men and women swept up in events beyond their control. Over the first few decades of his career, Lang was fascinated by secret conspiracies and the madness of crowds, depicting weak-willed individuals who found themselves thwarted by the former and seduced by the latter. It’s a phenomenon that Lang witnessed firsthand as the Nazis rose to power, and former friends became enemies—which is a connection he made explicit in the series of wartime spy thrillers he made in the early ’40s. In Ministry Of Fear, Milland finds himself in the familiar surroundings of London but unsure who to trust, since even the kindest-seeming souls are sometimes hiding black hearts.
Ministry Of Fear isn’t top-shelf Lang. After a terrifically strange and suspenseful opening, the pace slackens, with the memorable setpieces scattered about haphazardly. The acting is uneven, and some of the harder edges of Greene’s novel have been sanded off to make Ministry Of Fear’s characters more conventionally romantic and heroic. But as with many of Lang’s films, Ministry Of Fear has an immediacy that suits its story of a man unmoored. When Milland visits the fortune-teller at the start of the movie, he tells her, “Forget the past, tell me the future.” That’s an apt motto for this man in this place, worn to a frazzle from years of conflict. Why wouldn’t Milland just leap headlong into whatever crisis is right in front of him? Nothing matters but now.
Key features: A 17-minute interview with Lang scholar Joe McElhaney, providing a lot of context for the film.