Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Noir-a-Thon: Ministry of Fear (1944)

Moving our Noir-a-Thon on to the second of the Graham Greene adaptations, Ministry of Fear is directed by the man behind classics such as Metropolis and M, Fritz Lang. You can find the Noir-a-Thon vault here.

: Fritz Lang
Starring: Ray Milland, Marjorie Reynolds, Dan Duryea
Year: 1944
Country of origin: USA
Language: English

Synopsis: Ray Milland inadvertantly gets drawn in to a Nazi spy ring at an English County Fair and doesn't know who to trust as he tries to clear his name for murder and reveal the spy ring to the police.

What Indie Nights? review

Greetings BBBG readers, it's Leah 'I'm-running-out-of-ways-to-introduce-myself' from What Indie Nights?. I suppose 'from What Indie Nights' is a good enough way. Maybe I should just start introducing myself with a random fact - did you know that in England that if someone doesn't die within a year and a day of another person intentionally harming them, it can't be called murder?

Of course you didn't.

Ministry of Fear (1944)

And as I sit here, drinking cold chocolate (it's like hot chocolate, only when the person making it was too lazy to heat up the milk) and thinking about Ministry of Fear, I wish it weren't true, because Fritz Lang intentionally harmed me with his adaptation of Graham Greene's wartime novel and I think I died a little inside.

Ok, ok, I may be being a little hyperbolic, but truly, that movie was no noir, and it was a pretty poor example of any genre. As Toby will tell you, there are some lovely scenes, but they're lost in the drab, uninspiring story and confusing characters - including one bumbling private detective (there's your first clue, folks, that one's a big noir no-no) who lets his client come with him on a stakeout and then doesn't appear again for the whole film. I like to call him Mr. Plot B. Device, P.I.

Ministry of Fear (1944)

Firstly, and I know we (or especially, I) harp on about this a lot, but there's no femme fatale. At all. There's one American actress pretending to be an Austrian refugee with a 'brother' who looks a lot like Joel Cairo from The Maltese Falcon (another clue!) and behaves like butter wouldn't melt in his mouth.

Our hero is an ex-mental patient who's about as tough as a kitten rolling in sparkly pink sugar and with much less charisma - the poor soul won't look at another cake for the rest of his life after the dreadful events following his release from hospital! Just imagine - you're mistaken for another man and given a secret code that wins you a cake at a country fair - terrifying so far - and are then pursued in a gentlemanly manner by a faux-blind old codger who crumbles your cake before your eyes to find - what? The real eggs with which said cake was made? The audience's engagement with the story? Nope, it's the MacGuffin, of course. To top off this really traumatising experience, a man is apparently shot during a relatively unrelated seance and you're framed for the crime! Now you have to go on the run, trying to avoid capture as well as discover just what made that cake so delicious- er, I mean, dangerous. Wouldn't you be afraid of cake forever, too?

Ministry of Fear (1944)

Sure there were a lot of characters with shady motives, but none of them were really characters, more like occasional pieces of dialogue spoken by pieces of furniture. Someone got double crossed, I think, but I'd struggle to tell you who. There was no real sense of threat to our hero, the crimes committed take second place to watching Marjorie Reynolds flutter her eyelashes, and we're left with a sense of general confusion and malaise. I guess what I'm trying to say here is that the movie was out-and-out silly, pretty boring and totally devoid of suspense or atmosphere.

Ministry of Fear (1944)

Now the most disappointing thing for me: I've gone on record as a Graham Greene devotee, so I suppose you can take or leave my opinion on this one depending on your view of things, but the man could write atmosphere and subtle nuances even if he had to write a microwave manual (the microwave would have a shameful past and end up reconsidering its faith in Microwave-God whilst making astute and poignant observations about its own mechanisms) and it's a crying shame to have his work butchered like this.

Ministry of Fear (1944)

Until next time, fellow travellers on the path of noir, and let us hope it's a better next time...

Blahblahblahtoby review

I've been struggling to find thoughts for this review. It's a film that is possibly as convoluted as the genre gets with very few redeeming features. Fritz Lang, the master film maker himself directed this and it was seemingly, loosely, based on Graham Greene's novel of the same name. Aside from those names I'm pretty much stumped. If you thought I didn't like Laura last week (which I did by the way) then you will probably think I hated this one.

The adaptation is quite a drawn out proposition, with apparent crosses and double crosses, misunderstandings and lies littering the course as obstacles for our hero to overcome within the 88 minute run time. Which is fine in a film noir if you care about the characters or the storyline but in this instance you don't learn enough about any of the characters beyond what's required for the plot to continue and the story is told in nothing more than plot points, moving gracelessly from one scene to another.

Ministry of Fear (1944)

I haven't read the original novel so I cannot compare the two but this has all the hallmarks of a bad adaptation, not least because there are none of the usual qualities of a Graham Greene story such as the study of humanity or human behaviour.

This is probably the worst of the Fritz Lang movies I've seen, his direction isn't bad, in fact there are some great visual moments such as shooting somebody through a door from a dark room but they're lost on a movie as unentertaining as this and watered down by the fact that at no point do you believe that this is happening in Central London, during The Blitz. It is not grey or oppressive, people are not concerned with the bombings or even the war at all, it's a terrible Hollywood recreation all the more offensive as the film was made during WWII.

Ministry of Fear (1944)

If you've seen the end of the theatrical version of Blade Runner then you've seen the end of Ministry of Fear, it's hard to say which one is worse. In Blade Runner it's an awful addition to a good movie but in Ministry of Fear it's an awful addition tacked on to an already poor movie.

On to categorising it within the noir motifs so I can concentrate on, hopefully, a better noir next week. This was a simple On The Run story with not so much gangsters in place of Nazis/Commies but actual Nazis. And worst of all, there's a happy ending. A very happy ending. Complete with the kind of dialogue and gurning more at home in a slapstick comedy.

Ministry of Fear (1944)

This film doesn't actually appear in the Film Noir Encyclopedia, which leads me to believe that it may not even be a film noir. I admit my judgement may have been clouded during my research by the fact that this was an adaptation of Graham Greene by Fritz Lang, a combination I couldn't resist. I think I deserved better!

Seen it? Disagree? Were you also disappointed by the adaptation? Graham Greene fans this is a call to arms! Leave me your blah below.

And now for some coming attractions


  1. I watched it about a month ago, and though it's not up to the standard of Lang's best films I still thought it was quite good. I have no particular investment in Graham Greene, so I'm not that bothered by it being different to the book.

  2. Shame this one isn't very good because it sure has a great title.

    BTW, wouldn't cold hot chocolate just be chocolate milk? That sounds almost like a Mitch Hedberg joke.

  3. James1511 - I haven't read the book, so I'm not worried about the film being 'different'; what bothered me was that Greene's novels are brimming with noir-like atmosphere, brooding and shady pasts, and this movie had none of that.

    Bonjour Tristesse - I don't know who Mitch Hedberg is, although Wikipedia tells me he was an American stand-up comedian known for his surreal humor and unconventional comedic delivery. I would say the difference between cold hot chocolate and 'chocolate milk' (a phrase I wouldn't jump at automatically - perhaps an Americanism?) is that I made it myself - drinking chocolate powder mixed with cold milk - rather than buying the chocolate-flavoured milk. Semantics? Probably.
    I totally agree about the title. I can't believe it wasn't a good noir. What a waste!

  4. @JAMES - I've just seen your blog for the first time, you watch an extremely eclectic array of films and I am honoured that you choose to stop by BUT can i ask, why did you feel that way? You're obviously not the only person who enjoyed the film, it's relatively well thought of, I'm just intrigued whether "quite good" means it simply wasn't awful or you found some merit to the film.

    I will say that I have since found out that GRAHAM GREENE himself disliked the movie, not that that has any real meaning but he did go on to write quite a few VERY good screenplays.

    @BT - You're so right about the title, ordinarily I would have mentioned the problem with the title too. It's a great title and as far as I remember it has nothing at all to do with the action that plays out. It must have been something subtle from the novel that got removed in the adaptation process.

    Here in Perth you can buy a freshly made Iced Chocolate in coffee shops. Initially I found it strange but then in Perth they serve hot coffee in a glass and that sort of freaks me out too.

  5. You kids are just so damned witty!!

    I always enjoy the read when you do these posts. Love the bit about a Microwave manual!! Very funny.

    I am not going to be seeing this one am i? I am a bad Boy!!

  6. @SL - kids?! it's always Leah that's funny. Damn her. Don't bother with this one until you run out of excellent films to see.