Ministry of Fear (1944)

Ministry-of-Fear-swastikaAfter the first couple of paragraphs, this post is pretty much nothing but spoilers. Ye’ve been warned.

During the 30s and early 40s, Austrian-exile Fritz Lang wanted to make not just anti-fascist pictures, but anti-Nazi pictures. In the American studios where Lang began making movies in 1936, this was a hard sell for much of the war. He did make four films in which Nazis are central to the plot—Manhunt (1941), Hangmen Also Die! (1943), Ministry of Fear (1944), and Cloak and Dagger (1946). Of these, Ministry of Fear is the only one that has no actual Nazis* in it. Ministry is instead filled with collaborators, making everyone a potential threat.

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A mischievous Lang at a typically Expressionist angle.

The film, adapted from the Graham Greene novel, opens with our hero, Stephen Neale (the sporting Ray Milland), being released from an institution where he’s been remanded for the “mercy killing” of his wife. In other words, Neale has been something of a collaborator himself. (He brought his dying wife some means of killing herself but couldn’t bring himself to administer it. Unbeknownst to him, she found it and killed herself.) Since the trial, Neale has been resting up in the Lembridge asylum.

In the Criterion Collection liner notes for the film, Glenn Kenny describes Ministry as a “nightmare film” rather than a Nazi film—that is, a film like Lang’s earlier M (1931) or the Mabuse (1922; 1933) films, movies in which the Ministry of Fearprotagonist is not so much involved in a plot as trapped in a psychologically overwrought context, an atmosphere rather than a real place. That atmosphere—which Lang excelled at—veers uncomfortably between oppressive and angst-ridden. Even before we know what sort of trouble Neale will get himself in, there is an unnerving emphasis on the passing of time. The film opens on a clock—the one ticking away the minutes until Neale is once again a free man. When he buys a ticket back to London at the Lembridge rail station, the clerk says he’ll have it “in the wink of an eye.” The train, however, Neale has to wait for.

To pass the time, Neale attends a village fête (pronounced by all and sundry as “fate”) benefitting the Mothers of Free Nations charity. Looking a bit dazed by what appears to be more social interaction than he’s had in a long time, Neale is first pressed into guessing the weight of a cake—made with tightly rationed eggs—and is then compelled to have his palm read. And here is where things go sideways for Neale.

The palmist tells Neale he will make a woman very happy; Neale protests, “I’m not married.”

Ministry palmist

“Well, you will be!” she practically shouts at him. “You’ve made at least one woman happy,” she insists, but Neale doesn’t want to hear any more about the past, and who can blame him?

“Don’t tell me about the past,” he says, “show me the future.”

Unfortunately, these turn out to be the magic words the palmist is waiting to hear from a Nazi spy. Brushing issues of romance aside, she informs Neale that what he really wants is that cake, and she tells him what guess will win it for him. (For a cake everyone insists is very light because of those rare eggs, the “magic” weight of the cake is pretty heavy.) Confused, but cheerfully following directions, he returns to the cake stand and offers this new weight, winning the cake.

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It’s a Congratulations-on-getting-out-of-the-asylum cake!

Just as he is heading back to the station with his prize, the fête ladies stop him. The real spy (the criminally under-appreciated Dan Duryea) has materialized, and he wants his cake. The ladies insist that they’ve made a mistake, and that this new fellow has guessed much more closely to the “real” weight. Neale triumphantly points out that his original guess is much closer to this new weight than the angry, bowler-hatted interloper’s and heads back to the station. Fate, indeed.

In such circumstances, what can a spy do but send in a fake blind man to share Neale’s train carriage and steal back the made-with-real-eggs-secret-spy cake? Neale offers the fellow a slice (using the pocket knife all gentlemen used to carry), but rather than popping it in his mouth like a normal fake blind man, the man crumbles it in his fingers as though trying to find something in it. While the two men share the cake, the Nazis begin bombing a nearby munitions factory. The train slams to a stop. The fake blind man, not finding what he was looking for in the cake, whacks Neale over the head, hops off the train, and makes off with the rest of the cake.

The bombs are going off, the train is stopped somewhere in the countryside, and we can see the fake blind man scurrying off with his contraband, but Neale comes to pretty quickly. And this is where things get weird. Neale gathers himself, jumps off the train, and runs—towards the Nazi bombs—after the man who stole his cake. Just take a minute to savor that.

Of course, things have to clatter off the rails for Neale to really reassimilate. In order to rejoin civilization, he needs to be purged of his guilt in collaborating in his wife’s death. When Neale confesses his part in his wife’s death to his new love interest, Carla Hilfe (Marjorie Reynolds), they are even Underground, so that Neale can re-emerge a truly free man. Now, he can be the good guy, pursuing collaborators and Carla with a free (well, free-ish) conscience. So, when he says, “Show me the future,” it isn’t so much an unfortunate coincidence as a gateway to actually having one.

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Carla (Marjorie Reynolds) in a fabulous Edith Head suit with a slightly spooked Stephen (Ray Milland). Hey, remember the box in “Kiss Me Deadly”?

Austrian exiles Carla and her brother, Willi, run the Mothers of Free Nations, which has been hijacked by Nazis spies and collaborators. As Neale runs around London trying to find out who stole his cake, he and Carla are constantly framed in doorways, suggesting both a sense of being trapped and that somehow the pair are inescapably visible to their pursuers. In an attempt to track down the cake-foisting palmist, Neale and Willi attend a séance, and the angry man who wanted his cake (Duryea), turns up—and then gets shot, apparently with Neale’s gun. Then we see a second dour, bowler-hatted fellow tailing Neale.

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Bowlers, bowlers everywhere…

Neale is surrounded not only by people with suspect motives but also by fakes of one sort or another. Neale’s palmist was the spies’ replacement for the regular palmist, a professional fake who runs the séance. (But of course Neale’s palmist is quite real in that her readings turn out to be quite accurate.) There is the fake blind man, of course. The man who wanted the cake and then gets shot at a séance later turns up with yet another name, as a tailor, and very much not dead. The second bowler-hatted man who seems so menacing is a good guy. One can’t even be sure of the cake. The unknowableness of others’ motives until it is perhaps too late is essential to the queasy atmosphere Lang creates, and it is superbly effective at conveying an aspect of the terror Nazis were so good at manufacturing: paranoia. Upon finding the names of various suspect persons in their files, Carla exclaims to Willi, “They’re Nazis, Willi, I know it! The same as they were in Austria. It’s the way they work, all around you, knowing about everybody, everything, where to find you. …They’re here.” It’s this sense of collaborators hiding in plain sight, turning up everywhere you go, that I think makes Ministry of Fear not only a classic Lang “nightmare” film, but a Nazi film as well.

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Hillary Brooke as the real Mrs. Bellane, psychic.

Ministry of Fear is often introduced (or dismissed)  as one of Lang’s lesser films, but recently—especially since the Criterion re-release in 2013—interested parties are making a case for it. Perhaps trying to see the film as an anti-Nazi picture has masked its finer qualities. Looking at Ministry of Fear as a noir, a genre for which Lang is justifiably famous, might shift the focus to what the picture does (really) well, rather than its failure at things it’s not trying to (and maybe couldn’t) do. It certainly hits many of noir’s high (low?) notes: an imperfect man in over his head, the constant sense of unease and danger, typical noir angles, framings, and some noir-ish lighting.

Ministry is a fine film either way, not only because it’s Fritz Lang; it had loads of talent working on it. I’m becoming quite a Ray Milland fan, especially after watching this and another 1944 Milland picture, The Uninvited, a ghost story directed by Lewis Allen. Art director Hans Dreier (who has a whopping 535 credits on IMDb) worked on both, to wonderful effect. The unflappable and very tall (6′ 6″) Alan Napier (Alfred to Adam West’s Batman, for those of my generation) is also in both pictures. Character actor Dan Duryea, no slouch at 6′ 1″, deserves a post of his own; here, he gives us what Kenny describes as “uncharacteristic but altogether deliberate blandness” in a character who turns up like a bad penny, helping to evoke the paranoid sense of imminent betrayal that pervades the film. Plus, Duryea gets to dial a phone with a pair of ludicrously enormous tailors’ scissors, which look like an overisze prop for Hitchcock’s 3D Dial M for Murder (1954, another Milland picture).

Duryea_Ministry

Unfortunately, Ministry of Fear isn’t currently streaming on any platform I’m aware of—you just gotta wait for it from Netflix or buy it (or get it from your library, of course—mine had it!).

Here’s a peek – the fake blind man and the cake:

(*There is no one in the film who identifies as a Nazi, no one sporting jackboots or spouting fascist rhetoric. But one can make an argument for Carla’s brother Willi as one of those apparently affable Nazis who are inevitably revealed as cold-blooded bastards, both because of his false “old boy” avuncularity and the fact that he is the person giving the other collaborators their marching orders.)

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More Reading on Ministry of Fear:

MUBI essay focusing on the romance between Carla and Stephen

Turner Classic Movies’ page on Ministry of Fear

Bosley Crowther’s 1945 New York Times review 

IMDb’s page on Ministry of Fear

 

World War I: King and Country (1964)

This post is a part of the fantastic World War I in Classic Film blogathon hosted by the always intriguing Movies Silently and Silent-ology – go read the other excellent posts!

 

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One of the great—and somewhat overlooked—films about World War I was originally made for television in Britain, filmed entirely on a claustrophobic set with a small budget and a tight schedule (just under a month). Directed in 1964 by Joseph Losey, an American ex-pat across the pond, King and Country is based on a fictionalized memoir (Return to the Wood), also made into a play (“Hamp”). Never broadcast in Britain, it premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 1964, where it was quite popular.

The film is just under an hour and a half, and like its predecessor Paths of Glory (1957), it doesn’t waste time. The story begins with Private Arthur Hamp (Tom Courtenay) already locked up in a makeshift cell, with a bedstead for a door, charged with desertion. Captain Hargreaves (Dirk Bogarde) arrives to defend him at the trial the company will hold just behind the trenches, in the bombed-out buildings of Passchendaele, near Ypres, in Belgium.

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The location of the trial, in those crumbling structures, already suggests the corruption that will guide the proceedings. But the conflict in the film isn’t just between the immoral inertia of army command and, at least during the trial, Hargreaves; it is also a class conflict. When Hargreaves arrives, he has nothing but contempt for the working-class Hamp. Before meeting Hamp, he insists to Hamp’s platoon leader that the trial is “a waste of time,” and that Hamp should be shot because, as a soldier, he is broken.

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Tom Courtenay as Private Arthur Hamp and Dirk Bogarde as Captain Hargreaves.

Hamp certainly is broken, and Courtenay’s lost and exhausted look throughout the film conveys this with pathos. Hamp, a cobbler like his father and grandfather, isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, and between army indoctrination and traditional class distinctions, he has been trained in deference to his superiors. When Hargreaves inquires, “Do you know why I’m asking you these questions?” Hamp’s reply is almost cheerful: “You know best, sir.” He assures his platoon leader, “I’m sure I’ll get a fair trial.” Hamp trusts the system. Specifically, he trusts the system to recognize that what the army has labeled desertion was nothing more than an uncontrollable bodily urge to get away (not unlike the diarrhea Hamp is plagued with at several upsetting moments in the film).

Quite obviously suffering from shellshock, Hamp simply goes for a walk, ten days after returning from the front. As Hargreaves learns during his interview with the Private, Hamp has been soldiering for three years at one battle or another. As Hargreaves points out during the trial, this is longer than many of the officers under whom Hamp serves. He is the last survivor of his original platoon. Hamp has nearly drowned in a foxhole. Hamp’s friend, Willie Bryson, is blown up next to him, what’s left of Willie’s body landing all over Hamp. And recently, Hamp has received a letter from home informing him that his wife has left him for another man. When he “deserts,” Hamp simply wants to get away from the noise of the guns. Insofar as he’s thinking about what he’s doing at all, he thinks in a vague way that he will walk home to Islington.

Hargreaves loses his crusty upper-class contempt for Hamp during the interview before the trial. Hargreaves is sure Hamp is not his equal intellectually or socially, but he does understand that Hamp has been traumatized. It is painfully obvious that Hamp did not plan to desert—that he didn’t plan anything. Hamp is portrayed as a man who may not be capable of planning anything. He even joined the army on a dare. Courtenay’s Hamp is unable to articulate a defense, perhaps because questions like, “When did you decide to leave?” and “Why did you leave?” simply don’t make any sense to him. As Hargreaves argues during the trial, Hamp “had not the power to decide whether to stay or go.” Hamp does have, Hargreaves notes, “an embarrassing honesty, which made him a bad witness in his own case.”

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Courtenay, Bogarde, and Losey on the set.

The danger of Hamp’s character is that he might come across as a cipher—a blank—for all the poor saps in the trenches. Thankfully, Courtenay makes Hamp a real person, makes his initial trust in the system and his genuine confusion at his own behavior believable. Nor does Bogarde, who brought the script of the play to Losey, dilute Hargreaves’s classism. It may be Hamp’s naïve belief that everything will “come out all right” that first moves Hargreaves.

The screenplay sounds like a play—Hargreaves’s closing remarks are clearly the centerpiece—but the film doesn’t look like one. During the action, that is, the talking, the camera remains static, but between those scenes, the camera is notably mobile. What is most remarkable about the film visually, though, are the occasional cuts to photographs, many from the book of World War I photographs and paintings Covenant of Death. In one especially grim cut, as Hamp starts telling Hargreaves something: “Do you know, it’s funny,” we suddenly see a photo of a dead soldier, just barely distinguishable from the mud in which he lies, face-down.

While the trial can be seen as a riff on the one in Paths of Glory for a similar crime, another reference comes to mind: Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, originally published in 1938. I haven’t the faintest idea if Losey ever encountered it, but it is a long anti-war essay, which touches on classism (and, of course, sexism). Woolf inserts a series of

Kirk Douglas in Stanley Kubrick's *Paths of Glory*.

Kirk Douglas in Stanley Kubrick’s *Paths of Glory*.

photographs in the essay—there are no butchered soldiers, as I recall, but there are images of military pomp and circumstance. One of the first still images we see in King and Country is, according to TCM’s essay on the film, of “King George V riding with his cousin Kaiser Wilhelm II” before the war. If you’ve read Three Guineas, that still in the film immediately calls it to mind. One can imagine Woolf appreciating the film’s tic having characters employ euphemisms (“uh…what you’re accused of”) rather than saying “desertion.”

The film isn’t subtle, but Hargreaves’s disgust at the trial—however futile—is gratifying. The officers simply want to get it over with, and they seem happy to take the Medical Officer’s harangue about Hamp’s “cold feet” at face value. Hamp went to Leo McKern’s doc, who prescribed what he always does for what he believes is cowardice: an invigorating pep talk and a diahrreatic the intestinally-challenged Hamp really doesn’t need. It comes as something of a surprise to learn that, although the officers have convicted Hamp as a deserter, they have recommended leniency and imprisonment, rather than execution. Less surprising, but no less infuriating, especially as we believe Hamp has narrowly escaped a death sentence, is the cable from HQ overriding the officers’ decision. The platoon is moving back up the line to the front the next day, and an example must be made—I kid you not—for morale. How shooting a comrade, someone you fought next to, is supposed to improve your mood is a mystery.

But it gets worse. Because Hamp’s platoon members don’t want to shoot him, they manage to bungle the execution. Hamp is riddled with bullets but not dead. Using his own pistol, Hargreaves finally shoots him in the mouth. And that is where the film ends. It is left up to the audience to decide whether Hargreaves acted as he did in order to help Hamp, to put him out of his misery—and in disgust at the system which has butchered him—or whether Hargreaves is simply disgusted with the platoon’s incompetence and feels he has to step in as an officer and fix what the privates have botched. It is, in a way, the most interesting part of the film.

TCM has a video of the film’s grim and graceful opening, which for some reason, refuses to embed here.

http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/video/413826/King-Country-Movie-Clip-Royal-Fellowship-Of-Death.html

 

Literary postscript:

When Hargreaves and Hamp’s CO (Peter Copley) commiserate about the news from HQ (which, to be fair, wouldn’t have happened if the CO had just taken responsibility and not cabled them), they speak in poetry. In what is the more affecting quotation, to me, Hargreaves looks in the mirror and says, “There is a porpoise close behind me and it’s treading on my tail.” It’s from the Mock Turtle’s Song in Alice in Wonderland, with it’s refrain, “Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you join the dance?” The fish in the song later insists, “You can really have no notion how delightful it will be/When they take us up and throw us, with the lobsters out to sea!”

Hargreaves finishes the thought with some lines from John Masefield’s poem “Biography,” to which Hamp’s CO responds with lines from the same poem: “When I am buried, all my thoughts and acts/will be reduced to lists of dates and facts/and long before this wandering flesh is rotten/the dates which made me will be all forgotten.”