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"My instructions are these: What you want is the cake.",
This review is from: Ministry of Fear (Criterion Collection) (DVD)
What a curious film is 1944's MINISTRY OF FEAR, with its persistent excursions into the peculiar. It's a World War II spy thriller and based on Graham Greene's novel. Acclaimed director and German expatriate Fritz Lang has remarked that MINISTRY OF FEAR isn't one of his favorite works. But there's no doubting the film's ability to pique the viewer's interest. Watching this thing, the viewer will at least scratch his head several times.
It's even fitting that our protagonist is an Englishman who'd just finished serving a two year stint in the Lembridge Asylum for killing his wife, except that Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) pleads extenuating circumstances. Today, even though England is being bombed with frightening frequency by the Luftwaffe, he just wants to re-enter society and blend in like regular folks. He shouldn't have gone to that charity fair being conducted by old dowager volunteers. But Stephen Neale was waiting to catch a train, and he had time to kill.
In the fair he's coaxed into having his fortune read by a palm reader who proceeds to deliver a cryptic message: "My instructions are these: What you want is the cake." The rest of the instructions allow Neal to win a weight-guessing game, the prize of which is a cake. What sort of cake? Why, a McGuffin cake.
Ray Milland wears perplexity pretty well, and this suits the film ideally. His character's muddling thru is marked by frequent bouts of bafflement. The kernel of the plot concerns his efforts to expose a spy ring. Except that Stephen Neale is a rank amateur in this atmospheric game of intrigue. Along the way, he stumbles onto a seance, is accused of murder, and, yes, is assaulted and repeatedly shot at over the cake he'd won by mistake. Turns out, the loony bin was a whole lot safer.
MINISTRY OF FEAR is a moody and underrated mystery thriller, and maybe it's underrated because of the offbeat turns the plot takes. Credit Fritz Lang's knack for stringing along the audience. I liked the story's unpredictability. Lang massages that bump of paranoia until I wasn't sure whom I could trust onscreen. There is no dearth of untrustworthy characters. Even those amicable Austrian siblings, Carla (Marjorie Reynolds) and Willi (Carl Esmond), who elect to assist Stephen Neale in his improbable task, I gazed at them all askance. The sinister Dan Duryea is also here. As far as Dan Duryea is concerned, heck, probably even his mother looked at him with suspicion.