Recently issued by Criterion, Ministry of Fear (1944) has pedigree to burn. It’s directed by cinema pioneer Fritz Lang, and it’s based on a novel by Graham Greene, one of the forefathers of contemporary spy fiction. It’s definitely my favorite of the Lang films on the list, an entertaining wartime noir set in England at the height of the Blitz.
The intrigue begins when Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) is released from a mental asylum. While waiting for his train to London, he stops in at a local fair, where he wins a cake. The only problem: the cake was intended for a Nazi spy, and Neale has unwittingly inserted himself into the shadowy world of espionage. An enemy agent clobbers him on the train during an air raid and steals the cake, only to be killed in the bombing. Neale is too curious to let it lie, and upon his return to London, he investigates the charity that ran the fair. There he meets the Hilfes, Willi (Carl Esmond) and the beautiful Carla (Marjorie Reynolds), cheerful Austrian escapees who offer to help. But their efforts to find out what’s going on get Neale into hot water when he’s accused of a murder he didn’t commit. And who will believe a man recently released from an asylum when he starts hollering about an international spy ring?
Better paced and more accessible than Lang’s other Spy 100 entries, Ministry of Fear is attractively shot and nicely performed, with an effective thriller plot that sets up and then solves its mysteries with confidence. The characters are a bit thin, which makes it difficult to get too invested, but on the whole I found it an engaging wartime thriller, on a par with some of Hitchcock’s better work from this decade. A well executed Hollywood noir.