Wednesday, November 23, 2011

In short: Ministry of Fear (1944)

England, 1944. Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) is released from the asylum he spent the last two years of his life in for the mercy-killing of his fatally ill wife into the bomb-scourged countryside. On his way to London, Stephen visits a charity country fair and wins himself a cake under slightly complicated and bizarre circumstances that involve a fortune teller and attempts to renege on the promised cake (I wouldn't be surprised if GLaDOS had seen the movie, really). Next thing Stephen knows is a fake blind man is stealing his cake, only to be hit by a German bomb.

Stephen can't let the strange occurrences he experienced rest, so, once he has arrived in London, he begins a series of enquiries that will lead him onto the trail of a Nazi spy ring. Stephen will visit a drunk private detective, take part in a séance that will leave him under the suspicion of being a killer, and stumble into the arms of an Austrian émigré (Marjorie Reynolds) who may either be the woman he's going to marry or a Nazi spy herself.

I know this is still something of a sacrilegious idea in certain circles, but I've always preferred Fritz Lang's Hollywood movies to those he made in his first German phase. I think it has something to do with the friction between a fiercely intellectually independent like Lang and the strictness of the Hollywood system, or rather the sparks that can result when a director has to fight for every self-indulgence (see for example also Seijun Suzuki).

Ministry of Fear has always been one of my favourite films by Lang. This will probably not come as much of a surprise to regular readers of this blog (hi, Mum!), for Ministry of Fear contains many of the elements known to get me excited. First and foremost, there's a feeling of the bizarre (and sometimes the whimsical) lying at its heart, as if it were perfectly reasonable for a Nazi spy ring to hide McGuffins away in cakes and stage fake séances to cover their tracks and scare interlopers away; if you need realism instead of the peculiar yet coherent logic of certain types of mental illnesses or dreams in your plots, you'll probably despair of Lang's film quite soon.

Ray Milland's Reynolds is obviously the perfect foil for a plot of this kind, because he's more than just a little unsure of his own position in life and reality, and at first clearly can't decide if he's gotten so out of step with life in the world that quotidian reality looks strange to him, or if quotidian reality itself has gotten out of step. Lang's matter-of-fact depiction of wartime England as a place where it's as normal as waiting at a bus stop to keep to blackout rules and calmly go to the next bomb shelter once the bomb warnings sound emphasises this feeling of a world that's become strange even further. Once the outside world has reached a point like it did during World War II, Lang's film seems to say, there's just no telling what's real and what a paranoid fantasy. There might never have been that much of a difference anyway.

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