Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Favorite Film: MINISTRY OF FEAR starring Ray Milland

Famed director, Fritz Lang's Ministry of Fear (1944), a film based on Graham Greene's equally sinister and entertaining book, is one of those films I've never grown tired of watching and re-watching over the years. There's just something about it that, from the first few moments, always gets to me and refuses to let go. If this film in on, I drop everything and stay to watch. I used to think I wasn't really a big fan of Ray Milland, I've changed my tune: I am now, officially, A BIG FAN of Ray Milland, especially in these three films: Ministry of Fear, The Uninvited and Dial M for Murder. (In this last film, I too would have been driven to murder by Grace Kelly's impossibly meek and oh-so-tremulous demeanor, I mean, give it a rest. We get it, we get it - ha! Hitchcock and his 'thing' for perfect ice blonds. Jeez.)

Anyway, the female co-star in Ministry of Fear - which, by the way, is supposed to take place in 1941 England though very few of the actors even attempt any kind of creditable accent - is Marjorie Reynolds. She is the weakness in the cast, though in truth, even she becomes tolerable after awhile. But she's got this kind of 'wide-eyed' housefrau demeanor that works against her on the big screen. I think later on she became a tv wife on some hit show, maybe Life of Riley with William Bendix. There, she blended in perfectly. (Though how she came to marry a character played by William Bendix was never adequately explained to my satisfaction.)

In the film, Reynolds plays Carla Hilfe, a not very convincing blond with a kind of all-purpose European accent. Her brother Willi is played by a very smarmy Carl Desmond with a heavy accent to match. (Why his accent is that much heavier than his sister's is never adequately explained either, but I can see I'm digressing again...)

I promise to stay on track, at least for the next few sentences: At the very beginning of the film, Ray Milland's character, Stephen Neale has just been released from an 'asylum' - something to do with the 'mercy' killing of his wife. I've never been able to remember one way or the other, if he was actually guilty or not, don't know if it's ever really explained. He was in there for two years, that much I know. (It's better explained in the book in which, by the way, his character is named Arthur Rowe and there is no love interest, if I'm remembering correctly.) So here's the ticket: he's been released from an asylum into a world at war - a world not exactly sane.

So, Neale is on a train going to London, a chastened, quiet man, very much alone, who obviously, has been through some hard times. There's a bit of eerie music and camera work too, just to keep things mysterious. Anyway, on the spur of the moment, he stops at one of those English country fetes where fortunes are told and things like baked goods are raffled off. It's the end of the day and there aren't many people about. There are, however, a bunch of very hearty, elderly English women who, mysteriously, confuse him with someone else and hand him a cake. Well, they make sure he wins it in the raffle, which is basically the same thing.

Okay, so as he's leaving, another man drives up and it turns out HE is the one the women have been waiting for. But too late, Milland is not giving up his cake. (The film is set in 1941 - flour and butter are in short supply so the cake is a real treat.) The man that drives up at the last minute is Dan Duryea, everyone's favorite sleaze of a villain, so you know right away something is definitely up. The thing about the 'country fete' is this: the place appears 'normal' but with a very sinister vibe, seriously creepy. Yet Milland, just released from incarceration, pretends, I suppose, that he doesn't notice or maybe he thinks this is the way the world acts on the 'outside'. Hard to tell. The war is a burden on everyone and maybe this is the new normal.

Anyway, Milland gets back on a train with his cake, trailed by a blind man with whom the Milland character offers to share said cake. Later, the 'blind' man snatches the cake, runs from the train and gets blown up by a bomb. (Obviously he wasn't very blind at all.) Don't forget the film is set during WWII.

I know, I know, it sounds highly improbable. But so is the rest of this story. That's why I love it.

Okay long story, short, a very confused Milland arrives in London, hires a private detective to find out about the organizers of the fete - he's begun putting two and two together - meets the Marjorie Reynolds character and her brother who are refugees, members of a Foreign Aid organization helping raise funds for said refugees, goes to a seance attended by more seriously sinister types including everyone's favorite suspicious blond Hillary Brooke, stumbles into a spy ring and gets accused of murder. The wise old police inspector put on his trail is just smart enough to give the Milland character enough rope to hang himself and the chase is on.

There are not a lot of high cost production values and most of the film seems shot in a studio environment, but nevertheless, I love this film. The thing is so damned sinister and nothing is as it appears to be and poor Ray Milland, fresh from the loony bin, has every strike against him. Plus you get the always entertainingly sleazy Dan Duryea as an evil tailor. Love it.
You can see the original trailer from 1944, here.


  1. I'm a fan of Ray Miland (I had a crush on him when I was in my 20s and just discovering his movies) and normally will watch a movie if he is in it though I have not seen this one. I am a huge fan of the other two movies you mentioned though, The Uninvited has to be one of the best ghost stories I've ever watched and I've alwasy loved Dial M for Murder.

  2. Ryan, you have a lot of catching up to do. I meant to mention another Milland film I've always liked even if it is preposterous: THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR with Ginger Rogers. Remember that one? So cute.

    You must see MINISTRY OF FEAR, absolutely. Make haste! :)

  3. I just got done watching this about 10 minutes ago and I enjoyed it. It was a little far fetched. I'm not sure I would go chasing someone off a train just because they stole my cake, but I guess he was hungry. It was enjoyable overall and I'll probably look for it next time it's on TV. I may even check into whether or not it's on DVD.

    I loved the seance scene though. The lighting it was brilliant and was filmed beautifully.

    Thanks for your review. I never would have watched this one if you hadn't posted about it.

  4. Hi Ryan, it sounds like you were a bit underwhelmed by the film. But I'm glad you watched it anyway and on the whole, you don't think it was a waste of your time.

    The cake thing, I think, is because of the awful shortage at the time of flour, butter and the other ingredients of cake making. A cake at that time was a pretty special thing. A 'real' cake, I mean. The ingredients would have had to have been purchased on the black market. Maybe it's hard to understand that kind of thing today.

    But yes, Milland chasing the creepy 'blind man' was a bit odd. Still, he thought the guy was just a petty thief and how dare he. That kind of thing. Plus I think that Milland's character is supposed to be a bit high strung, just coming out of imprisonment and all.

    I LOVE the seance! Great scene. Love all the suspicious characters in attendance. So fun.

    I've been meaning to get the dvd of this and also of the other Milland film I love: THE UNINVITED. DIAL M FOR MURDER is coming up on TCM also. And THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR, another wierd one - but I love it anyway. Ha!

  5. Yvette, I've read and enjoyed lots of Graham Greene, though I've never caught up with either the book or film version of MINISTRY OF FEAR. I was going to wait until I had the opportunity to read the novel, but your rollicking review and that wild-and-crazy trailer is making me think I should just watch the film as soon as I have a free moment! :-) I'm reminded of an episode of this daft animated comedy-horror series on Cartoon Network that we of Team Bartilucci find hilarious, THE GRIM ADVENTURES OF BILLY AND MANDY, in which two oddball kids manage to force The Grim Reaper to live with them; wacky hijinks ensue (really!). To make a long story short, a cake plays a role in one of the episodes, and a Richard Simmons-type is obsessed to get the cake, snarling, "OOH I WANT THAT CAKE!!!" Well, maybe you have to see this insane little show to really appreciate it, but it had us laughing out loud! :-) Loved your review!

  6. Oh, you have to see this Dorian. As I said, I can't wait to read your take. I don't believe anyone else has the same amount of enthusiasm as I do for this film, so we'll see how you feel about it. :)

    The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy...hmmm. I'll have to look for this. Ha!


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