Friday, June 8, 2012

MINISTRY OF FEAR: The Cake is a Lie!

I proudly proclaim that as of this writing, it's my birthday!  I’m now a fresh-faced lass of 49 summers!  Director Fritz Lang’s 1944 film adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1943 suspense novel Ministry of Fear (MoF) struck me as the perfect movie to blog about today. It’s got everything this birthday girl could want in a suspense movie blog post: suspense; paranoia; atmospheric lighting and cinematography by Henry Sharp (Duck Soup; The Crowd; It Happened on Fifth Avenue); offbeat comedy, and most importantly for any celebration, cake!

"I took my troubles down to Madame Ruth...."
Stephen's thrilled to be free to
eat tasty cake again!
The setting is wartime 1941 England, and our hero, Stephen Neale, is played by Ray Milland, always awesome whether he’s in comedies such as Easy Living or The Major and The Minor; suspenseful yet urbane thrillers like The Big Clock and Dial M for Murder; chilling science fiction like X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes; and of course, his Oscar-winning performance in The Lost Weekend. I’ve always particularly liked Milland’s sensitive side. For me,  MoF works so well because the character he plays seems so likable and poignant, especially considering what he’s been through. Milland should’ve gotten an Oscar nomination for MoF.  The script by screenwriter/producer Seton I. Miller (Scarface, The Dawn Patrol; Here Comes Mr. Jordan; The Adventures of Robin Hood) is pretty wild, but it had me hooked!

We first meet Stephen sitting in a dimly-litroom as he waits for parting advice from Dr. Norton (Niagara; The Prize; TV’s 77 Sunset Strip). As Stephen literally watches the clock, the dialogue sets the scene:

Stephen: “You know, it’s interesting to watch the last minutes crawl by, after so many of them.”
Dr. Norton: “I always meant to speed it up.”
Stephen (wryly yet ruefully):
“Fine time to think of it.”

Although the good doctor urges Stephen to make his fresh start in a quiet town far from the madding crowd of Blitz-plagued World War Two London, Stephen says thanks, but no thanks: “I’m gonna spend the first month being pushed and jammed by the biggest crowds I can find. I want to hear people talk and laugh…seeing faces will be a good tonic.” We finally see the name of the place Stephen’s leaving: Lembridge Asylum! Dr. Norton kindly but firmly advises Stephen not to get involved with the police: “A second charge wouldn’t be easy.”  Um, we’re not talking about a ticket for jaywalking here, are we, Stephen?

As our hero awaits the next train, he finds himself at a jolly village fete with games, kids, and food, particularly a tasty-looking cake set to be raffled off for a local charity, The Mothers of the Free Nations. The fortune-teller, one Mrs. Bellane (Aminta Dyne), gives Stephen unusually specific weight and measurements for the cake in order to win that tasty dessert. Who knew innocent charity fetes were fixed? But it’s easy to understand why the cake is so coveted, considering flour and butter weren’t easy to come by during wartime.  In fact, the ladies in charge of the fete get awfully anxious when it appears Stephen won the cake in error, to the visible annoyance of another apparent cake-lover, a gent named Cost (Dan Duryea, the man people loved to hate in other Fritz Lang noirs, including Scarlet Street and The Woman in the Window, not to mention Duryea’s funny/menacing henchman in Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire). No wonder Cost and Mrs. Bellane look pretty darn peeved when Stephen leaves with the cake.
As our friend and fellow blogger Yvette of …in so many words put it so well in her own 2010 MoF post:

That's the second-biggest scissors I've ever seen!
“(Duryea is) 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.”  For the record, my favorite bit in this scene is when Stephen guesses right about the cake’s weight; suddenly everyone and everything goes silent, as if it was one of those E.F. Hutton commercials from the 1960s and ’70s!  It’s a brief, deft blend of comedy and foreboding.  Talk about a strange twist of fete! 

Figuring out the tasty treat's weight
is a piece of cake!
“Jai Guru Deva. Ommm…
nothing’s gonna change my séance…”
War is hell, but at least
they have slumber parties!
I hope Miss Penteel's pad won't be hard to find!
Stephen’s sudden journey down the rabbit hole gets progressively more surreal when he boards his train to London. A blind man (Eustace Wyatt of Gaslight; Journey Into Fear; Madame Curie) sits there, and they share the cake. Too bad Stephen doesn’t notice that the supposedly-blind man keeps darting glances at our hero! When the guy tries to kill Stephen and grab the cake, things start blowing up real good, and that’s only the beginning of Stephen’s suspenseful, nutzoid ordeal! Increasingly paranoid, our beleaguered hero retains irascible, mercurial private detective George Rennit (Erskine Sanford, who performed with Orson Welles and his Mercury Players in Citizen Kane; The Magnificent Ambersons; The Lady from Shanghai), only to find Rennit's office ransacked.  The strange trail of clues leads to Mrs. Bellane—but not the one we viewers met at the fete! This new Mrs. Bellane is a babe, played by the ever-slinky and mysterious Hillary Brooke (Invaders from Mars; The Maze; Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much; and quite a few Sherlock Holmes films and Abbott and Costello comedies).  Too bad this rather glamorous séance ends up in murder, with Stephen the victim of the biggest frame-up since Whistler's Mother! Without giving too much away, I can sum up Stephen’s plight in two words: Nazi scum!   Even with everything Stephen goes through in this cinematic rollercoaster ride, he often manages to be saner than the oddball characters (including Alan Napier in his pre-Batman days) who are out to get him! At least Stephen seems to have found allies in Carla Hilfe (Marjorie Reynolds of His Kind of Woman; Holiday Inn; and The Time of Their Lives, not to mention playing Peg Riley on TV’s Life of Riley) and her brother, Willi (Carl Esmond of Sergeant York; The Dawn Patrol; Her Highness and the Bellboy), good-natured Viennese refugees who are helping The Mothers of the Free Nations. Need I say romance between Stephen and Carla isn’t far behind? My heart really went out to poor Stephen, and he truly engaged my sympathy as he did his best to hold onto his hard-won sanity in the midst of chaos not of his own making. I was especially touched by the scene where Stephen confides in Carla about the tragic circumstances surrounding the “mercy killing” of his beloved wife, resulting in his two-year stint at Lembridge Asylum.

If, like me, you love fast-moving, complicated, convoluted plots, chases, and eccentric touches, I think you’ll find MoF worth celebrating anytime!

For more MoF fun and info, check out these links:

* From the TCM Web site
* From Yvette’s 2010 …in so many words blog post about Ministry of Fear

Er, I’m not into nonfiction. Where’s your mystery/suspense section?

Even in life during wartime, there's always time for romance, by George!

Stephen takes a shot at making Mrs. Bellane v.2 confess!

One of my birthdays during high school.
Note the movie motif, including a plastic film reel!


  1. A fun and lively review. And a most Happy Birthday to the birthday girl.

    1. Jacqueline, thank you kindly for your charming birthday wishes, and I'm happy you enjoyed my irreverent take on MINISTRY OF FEAR! Care for some cake? :-)

  2. This looks like a TERRIFIC film! I must must see it.

    1. Thanks, Ruth; I'm glad you got a kick out of my MINISTRY OF FEAR post! With your delightfully cheeky sense of humor, I think you'll really enjoy MoF!

  3. I LOVE THIS MOVIE! In fact, I wrote about it too. A while back. But I love your review more. Well, maybe just a teensy bit more. Ha.

    HAPPY BIRTHDAY DEAR DORIAN! Happy Birthday, to you....!

    My birthday happens to be on Sunday. So we're practically born on the same day, give or take a few hours. :)

    1. Yvette, thanks for your cheerful Happy Birthday wishes! I'm happy you enjoyed my loopy take on one of my favorite loopy suspense thrillers! I hope you noticed I quoted from your wonderful original 2010 post and included links to it so you'd get credit and that others would enjoy your always-awesome writing! I'm big on giving credit where credit is due, especially with someone whose writing I enjoy as much as yours. Great job, my friend!

      And tomorrow is another day for you, in short, HAPPY BIRTHDAY, YVETTE! How awesome that our birthdays are only a couple of days apart! I hope your birthday this Sunday will be chock-full of love and laughter and wonderful times -- you deserve it! Birthday hugs to you from all of us here at Team Bartilucci H.Q.!

  4. Felicitations!

    "Ministry of Fear" actually introduced me to the word "fete" when I was a teenager. Everything I know I learned from movies.

    1. Thanks for your birthday felicitations, Caftan Woman! :-) We're two of a kind: I learned the word "fete", among a great many others, from hearing them in movies, as well as reading about them in my favorite books. It's true of us and so many others: everything we know, we've learned from movies! :-)

  5. “(Duryea is) everyone's favorite sleaze of a villain" - Oh so true, the slime just oozes off this guy. BTW, Duryea is also very good as slimy Slim Dundee in "Criss Cross."

    I have not seen this film which is surprising to even me because Lang is one of my favorite film directors. Milland always amazes me. I never considered him when thinking of great actors but in just about every film l have seen him he's terrific, and as you say, it does not matter whether it comedy or drama.

    Just to keep the "fete" thing going, I first learned about this word when reading a biography of The Beatles, Lennon and McCartney met at a church fete.

    And finally hope you had a very happy birthday!

    1. John, thanks for your charming birthday wishes! I jad a fab time with Team B. and our longtime bud Rosemarie in NYC; glad we ended up having a fine day for it despite a mercifully brief and light shower!

      I'm also tickled to hear about how John Lennon and Paul McCartney met -- so I guess their meeting really WAS a twist of fete! :-)

      You're not alone in your remarks about Ray Milland. I think he's another one of those actors that makes it look so easy that some moviegoers might not truly appreciate what an excellent, nuanced actor he could be at his best, even with an Oscar to show for it.

      Ah, good ol' sleazy Dan Duryea, who by all accounts was actually a nice guy in real life! I got a kick out of him going British in MoF! Your remark about Duryea's role in CRISS CROSS reminds me that I need to catch up with that again!

      Delighted to have you join the MoF convo, John!

  6. Sounds like a very interesting film noir, that most fans of the genre should find worth watching. I love film noir, so I will look for it on TCM.

    To celebrate your 49th birthday I made your awesome review article of the week. Happy Birthday!!

    1. Dawn, thanks a million for your kind birthday wishes, and also for so thoughtfully making my MINISTRY OF FEAR post your N&CF article of the week! As we say here at Team Bartilucci H.Q., you're the cat's tuxedo -- one of our highest honors! :-) Thanks again for being so sweet, and I hope you continue to be ever happier and healthier!

  7. 49 years old??? Faugh! You're still a mere lass with the dew of County Mayo upon your rosy cheek!

    (49 years my arthritic fanny!)

    On the one hand I want to say I always enjoy MINISTRY OF FEAR whenever I catch it. It's a nicely tuned little suspense drama. The only complaint I have is that, being a Fritz Lang film, I rather expect something different to happen with a title such as MINISTRY OF FEAR. More along the lines, maybe, of a cross between the Dr. Mabuse films and Kubrick's EYES WIDE SHUT. I think the film should've had perhaps a more innocuous title. Maybe Marjorie Reynolds' character could've been called Edith . . . then Ray Milland could've had his cake and Edith too!

    (Ba-boom . . . tss!)

    OK but seriously, the expectations of the title didn't quite match what the film delivered; which I know is an odd objection as well as a trivial one to use against an agreeable thriller like MINISTRY OF FEAR. I mean, after all, a Lang film is a Lang film is a Lang film. Your observation concerning Reynolds' character being an ally makes much more sense when you consider that "Hilfe" is the German word for "Help" ("yah . . Herr Lang must haf his little joke mit der audience!"). And that doorbell to Penteel's apartment is pure pre-war Ufa Lang!

    Other than that, check your math Dorian. If you're 49 years old then the only explanation is that there's a painting of you somewhere going all to heck.

    1. Come to think of it, Michael, I haven't been dusting my family pictures lately -- too busy writing! You're a sweetie to compliment my comparatively youthful appearance, and Edith and my Arthritic Fanny and I thank you! :-)

      Vinnie knows a little German ("He's standing over there.") and thus confirmed your translation of "Hilfe" to "Help." Yes indeed, Herr Lang must have his little joke! :-) Excellent point about the Ufa design motif, you clever fellow. Thanks again for your charming and witty birthday wishes, my friend, and hugs to you and yours from all of us here at Team Bartilucci H.Q., as always!

  8. First of all - I sure hope your day was magical, cinematic and a tad noir-ish. Second - a very neat post! This is one of those films I always say "I've got to see that" and never had. I must!!!

    1. FlickChick, thanks for your delightful birthday wishes and also for your praise of my MINISTRY OF FEAR post! I couldn't help smiling at your apt description of my birthday being "magical, cinematic and a tad noir-ish." as we did indeed start off my birthday fun in a kinda noir-ish way!

      See, I started my "birthday tour" by visiting the Kips Bay Show House with my dear longtime pal Rosemarie. We were temporarily stymied and unnerved at the directions to 60 Riverside Boulevard. We both grew up in NYC, but we couldn't remember there ever being a "Riverside Boulevard" in Manhattan!

      Eventually, we realized "Riverside Boulevard" was in fact an entirely new address built for the brand-new luxury Aldyn Residences, located almost literally on the waterfront at West 63rd Street, about six blocks' walk from the Time-Warner Center. The great Hudson River view was worth it! :-)

  9. First off, happy birthday, youngster! Second, I just watched MINISTRY OF FEAR again recently and thoroughly enjoyed it. The opening scenes are the equal of Hitchcock's finest. Fritz seems to lose a little grip toward its conclusion, but it's still an excellent suspense film. Plus, Majorie Reynolds was never more appealing. So glad you picked this film to highlight this week.

    1. Rick, many thanks for your birthday salute to this "youngster" (still feel like one, too!)! I'm happy to hear you made time for MINISTRY OF FEAR and enjoyed it as much as I did! Sure, it's got its loopy moments, but for me that's part of its appeal, being a tad loopy myself! :-) MoF has one of my favorite Marjorie Reynolds performances, too; as you said, she's so appealing, plus she and Ray Milland have charming chemistry together. Always glad to have you hang out here at TotED and join the movie conversation!

  10. Happy belated (as well as bleated ones, as my original typo would have it) birthday, with fittingly belated comments. May you always remain so young in look and spirit as you are right now, but, hey, you can always borrow Duryea’s outsized scissors to lop some years off your age, if you ever start to feel old! Great post, fun and GIFtastic
    Wrote about MoF recently and lovingly myself, so I can see why you enjoy it so much, it’s a really fun thriller I agree totally. I could absolutely pack a top 10 noirs list with almost all Fritz Lang, such great stuff that lasts, has that sick sense of humor and like this one, rival Hitch in the suspense dept. Not to be confursed with the dept of redundancy dept.
    That eyeball doorbell never fails to make me shudder. So, obviously i think I will be installing one at my house as it would deter solicitors.

  11. Kristina, whether your enthusiastic praise for my posts and GIFs (again, hooray for hubby Vinnie and his gift for GIFs!) is belated or bleated (insert nanny-goat sound F/X here), it's always welcome and appreciated -- thank you, my friend! LOL over your cracks about lopping off years with Dan Duryea's scissors; that's why it's important to be young at heart, not to mention keeping one's scissors sharp! :-)

    I absolutely agree that we Fritz Lang lovers could easily pack a top-10 noir list with virtually an All-Fritz-Lang list -- maybe even a Fritz Lang Blogathon! But not anytime soon for me, if only because my dear pal and co-host Becky Barnes and I are still putting together our upcoming BEST HITCHCOCK MOVIES (THAT HITCHCOCK NEVER MADE) Blogathon, which I am delighted to have you participating in -- only two weeks away as of this writing! :-)

    You know, I've been wanting to re-read your own MINISTRY OF FEAR blog post again, but for some reason I can't seem to find it. Yikes, maybe I AM getting old and addled after all! I'd be most grateful if you'd kindly send me another link to your MoF post, pretty please? Thanks again, Kristina; you're a sugar bowl with two handles (yes, that's a good thing here at Team B. H.Q.! :-))!

  12. LOL well I can confirm you are NOT getting old after all, and really have an amazing memory because you indeed read my MoF article, but it was in your copy of the Dark Pages a couple issues back, not posted to my blog (yet anyway). fritz lang a-thon aka monocle-thon sounds like great fun to me! but as you say, first comes the not-Hitch-a-thon, can't wait for that!!

  13. I read this one and never commented. Love the last photo of course!

    1. Aw, thanks for your kind praise for my MINISTRY OF FEAR post, Eve -- it's never too late for congratulations and felicitations! :-)

      Hubby Vinnie deserves the credit for the big red Germanic type in that final "CAKE?" scene. When Vin showed me his handiwork, we both cracked up, and it became one of our favorite gags! :-)