Thursday, August 7, 2008

Fear Not (Ministry of Fear)

Note: RFC's home away from home, the Cinematheque Royale de Belgique, has devoted its August program to rerunning classic films from across the globe. It's just an easy way for the CRB to fill out the August schedule, when the entire town is on vacation, but it might help me fill the many gaps in my cinema education. Throughout the month, I'll be posting irregularly on some of these.

Ministry of Fear
Fritz Lang
Viewed From: The Balcony

This really could have been a better movie. Fritz Lang, Graham Greene, Nazis...well, if anything Ministry of Fear shows how important having a big name star was to 40s motion pictures. I'll express my dislike of Ray Milland here and move on, but just about anyone would have been better for this role. Cary Grant is an obvious call, and tough to beat, but Milland is so milquetoast, so uninteresting, and is on screen almost every second of the film, that his presence drags down the rest of the movie. I'll save any final judgments on his work until after seeing his Oscar-winning performance in The Lost Weekend, but I'm not impressed so far. There's also the problem with the title, as the combination of Fritz Lang and "Ministry of Fear" got me excited for Kafkaesque fun in some bureaucratic nightmare. Unfortunately, however, the Ministry is never really talked about, and the Fear is just your garden-variety fear of being shot by Nazis, not the existential stuff.

There are a few genuine moments of FEAR, but nothing that lasts long, and certainly nothing that you will take out of the theater. The movie does begin with a nice trip down the rabbit hole, with a series of odd and inexplicable scenes that piqued this viewers interest - Stephen Neale (Milland) being released from prison, Neale winning a cake at a fair based on fortune-teller, a blind man beating up Neale to get the cake, a creepy seance with a lot of neat oddballs. However, as the strangeness begins to be explained the movie quickly loses interest. Oh, is that all it was about?

Lang does create some memorable scenes (though the opening take of a clock, drawing back to reveal a room, is superfluous, doing nothing more than demonstrating that one can move a camera on a dolly). One takes place against the backdrop of a Nazi bombing while Neale chases after his cake. Another is during the seance when he creates some real fear though a cool lighting technique and a whisper, and there is a great moment where a character gets shot though a door in the dark. There might have even been one more, but I think there was a problem with the final reel, as what is meant to be the climactic scene was disrupted. As Neale and some goons fight it out atop a hotel, we dimly see the figures he is shooting at. However, a light goes on in the stairwell, and we see the leader of the Ministry - the main bad guy! - emerge as two cops get shot just out of view. Neale is running low on bullets, and the evil Dr. Forrester (Alan Napier) is coming up the stairs, and...we cut to Neale and his girl driving in a convertible along the coast, happily ever after. The End. It's like Blade Runner, but if they had cut straight to the original ending like right as Deckard got to Sebastian's apartment.

Ministry of Fear is helped by some strong performances by Carl Esmond and Dan Duryea, and Lang's inventive shooting of conventional scenarios, but they cannot make up for a lifeless script (Seton I. Miller adapted from Graham Greene), a weak Milland and weaker Marjorie Reynolds (the girl), and a feel-good ending. It's also annoying that the entire movie takes place in England without any accents, and that the most creepy characters and more beautiful love interest (Hillary Brooke) are dropped without explanation. Seeing the proper ending would have been nice, but not enough to make this any more than minor Lang and Greene.


Sean said...

Interesting. I haven't seen much of Milland's stuff aside from Dial M For Murder where his milquetoastness is used to good effect. Never caught Lost Weekend for which he won an oscar (only one year after this!). But I wouldn't think a Lang and Cary Grant combination would work. Grant could never play anyone besides Cary Grant and this kind of noir stuff almost always requires character actors, not movie stars. It sounds like a B-movie and Milland is the prototypical B-list star. An Alan Ladd or Lawrence Tierney (or my favorite Glenn Ford) probably would've livened up the proceedings. Really, pre-Brando, about the most you could ask for was some charisma. While I think Milland probably had a decent amount of skill - he certainly lacked any real sex appeal which goes a long way in noir films.

Padraic said...

You might be right about 40s-era Grant. I was thinking more about his later work with Hitchcock.

I would also make sure to distinguish between noir and b-movie. The list of classic noirs is also a list of classic directors/actors.

I think 'Fear' was more supposed to be more along the line of Maltese Falcon/Double Indemnity than the real hardboiled stuff like The Killing or F-Men. I agree Milland would have been better in the latter type.