Ministry of Fear

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Ministry of Fear
Ministry of Fear poster.jpg
theatrical poster
Directed by Fritz Lang
Produced by Buddy G. DeSylva
Written by Seton I. Miller
Based on The Ministry of Fear
(1943 novel)
by Graham Greene
Starring Ray Milland
Marjorie Reynolds
Music by Victor Young
Miklos Rozsa
CinematographyHenry Sharp
Edited by Archie Marshek
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
  • October 1944 (1944-10)(US)
Running time
87 minutes
CountryUnited States

Ministry of Fear is a 1944 film noir crime film directed by Fritz Lang. Based on a novel by Graham Greene, the film tells the story of a man just released from a mental asylum who finds himself caught up in an international spy ring and pursued by foreign agents after inadvertently receiving something they want. The original music for the film was composed by Miklós Rózsa and Victor Young.

Film noir film genre

Film noir is a cinematic term used primarily to describe stylish Hollywood crime dramas, particularly those that emphasize cynical attitudes and sexual motivations. Hollywood's classical film noir period is generally regarded as extending from the early 1920s to the late 1950s. Film noir of this era is associated with a low-key, black-and-white visual style that has roots in German Expressionist cinematography. Many of the prototypical stories and much of the attitude of classic noir derive from the hardboiled school of crime fiction that emerged in the United States during the Great Depression.

Crime films, in the broadest sense, are a cinematic genre inspired by and analogous to the crime fiction literary genre. Films of this genre generally involve various aspects of crime and its detection. Stylistically, the genre may overlap and combine with many other genres, such as drama or gangster film, but also include comedy, and, in turn, is divided into many sub-genres, such as mystery, suspense or noir.

Fritz Lang 20th-century Austrian-American filmmaker, screenwriter, and occasional film producer and actor

Friedrich Christian Anton "Fritz" Lang was an Austrian-German-American filmmaker, screenwriter, and occasional film producer and actor. One of the best-known émigrés from Germany's school of Expressionism, he was dubbed the "Master of Darkness" by the British Film Institute.



In wartime England during the Blitz, Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) is released from Lembridge Asylum. While waiting for a train to London, Neale visits a village fête hosted by the Mothers of Free Nations charity. He guesses the weight of a cake for a shilling, apparently failing to guess the cake's true weight, and is urged to go to the palm reader's tent to have his fortune told by Mrs. Bellane (Aminta Dyne), an older woman. He asks her to ignore the past and tell the future, which startles her. She cryptically tells him to take another guess at the weight of the cake at 4 pounds 15½ ounces. Neale does so and wins the prize, the cake itself. Then a young blond man hurries to see Mrs. Bellane. People try to persuade Neale to give the cake to the blond man, but Neale refuses, as his initial guess was closer to the cake's true weight than the blond man's guess, by a few ounces.

The Blitz bombing of London during WWII

The Blitz was a German bombing campaign against Britain in 1940 and 1941, during the Second World War. The term was first used by the British press and is the German word for 'lightning'.

Ray Milland Welsh actor and film director

Ray Milland was a Welsh-American actor and film director. His screen career ran from 1929 to 1985, and he is best remembered for his Academy Award-winning portrayal of an alcoholic writer in The Lost Weekend (1945), a sophisticated leading man opposite a corrupt John Wayne in Reap the Wild Wind (1942), the murder-plotting husband in Dial M for Murder which was directed by Alfred Hitchcock (1954), and as Oliver Barrett III in Love Story (1970).

Fête party in a village in which (almost) all the local inhabitants participate

A fête, or fete, is an elaborate festival, party or celebration. In Britain, fêtes are traditional public festivals, held outdoors and organised to raise funds for a charity. They typically include entertainment and the sale of goods and refreshments.

Neale departs Lembridge with only a blind man (Eustace Wyatt) sharing his train compartment. Neale offers him some cake. Neale sees the blind man crumbling his portion. When the train stops during a Luftwaffe air raid, Neale's companion turns out not to be blind after all. He strikes Neale with his walking stick, steals the cake, and flees, with Neale in pursuit. The man shoots at him, but is killed by a German bomb. Neale finds the man's revolver and continues on to London.

<i>Luftwaffe</i> Aerial warfare branch of the German military forces during World War II

The Luftwaffe was the aerial warfare branch of the combined German Wehrmacht military forces during World War II. Germany's military air arms during World War I, the Luftstreitkräfte of the Army and the Marine-Fliegerabteilung of the Navy, had been disbanded in May 1920 as a result of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles which stated that Germany was forbidden to have any air force.

Neale hires private detective George Rennit (Erskine Sanford) to help him investigate the Mothers of Free Nations. Neale meets Willi Hilfe (Carl Esmond) and his sister Carla (Marjorie Reynolds), refugees from Nazi Austria who run the charity. Willi takes him to Mrs. Bellane's London mansion (followed by Rennit). Neale is shocked to discover that this Mrs. Bellane (Hillary Brooke) is a beautiful young medium. She invites them to stay for her séance. Among the other attendees are artist Martha Panteel (Mary Field), psychiatrist Dr. Forrester (Alan Napier), and Mr. Cost (Dan Duryea), the blond man at the fête. After the lights are dimmed, a mysterious voice claims she was poisoned by Stephen, disconcerting Neale. Then a shot rings out – Cost is found shot dead. Neale admits to having the blind man's gun. He flees with Willi's help.

Erskine Sanford American actor

Erskine Sanford was an American actor on the stage and in radio and motion pictures. A member of Orson Welles's Mercury Theatre company, he also appeared in several of Welles's films, most notably as the bumbling, perspiring newspaper editor Herbert Carter in Citizen Kane.

Carl Esmond Austrian actor

Carl Esmond was an Austrian film and stage actor, born in Vienna, Austria. Although his age was given as 33 in the passenger list when he arrived in the USA in January 1938, in his naturalization petition his birth year is stated as 1902. His birth name was Karl Simon with his stage names being Willy Eichberger and Charles Esmond and finally to Carl Esmond. He trained at Vienna's State Academy of Dramatic Arts, and made his film debut in the operetta The Emperor's Waltz in 1933. He was highly active in the Viennese genre of shallow romantic comedies so popular in the Austria of the interwar period.

Marjorie Reynolds actress

Marjorie Reynolds was an American film/television actress and dancer, who appeared in more than 50 films.

Neale goes to Rennit's office, only to find it ransacked. He talks to Carla. An air raid forces the two to shelter in an Underground station, where Neale reveals that he had planned to euthanize his terminally ill wife. He changed his mind, but she committed suicide anyway, using poison he had bought. Due to the circumstances, Neale received a light sentence of two years at the asylum. He confides that he is still unsure if in buying the poison for his wife he had made the right decision.

London Underground rapid transit system in London, United Kingdom

The London Underground is a public rapid transit system serving London, England and some parts of the adjacent counties of Buckinghamshire, Essex and Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom.

Euthanasia is the practice of intentionally ending a life to relieve pain and suffering.

The next morning, Carla hides Neale at a friend's bookstore. Neale spots a book by Forrester, The Psychoanalysis of Nazidom. Carla reveals that Forrester is one of her volunteers as well as a consultant for the Ministry of Home Security. Neale is convinced that Carla's organization is a front for Nazi spies. Carla finds out that almost all the people Neale suspects are charity volunteers, but all recommended by Forrester. She tells Willi about her discovery, and admits that she loves Neale.

That afternoon, Neale goes to Panteel's flat, only to find Mrs. Bellane. The two verbally spar. He flees when Panteel returns and begins screaming for the police.

Later, Carla tells Neale what she has learned. The bookseller asks the couple to deliver some books in a suitcase since they are leaving. When they arrive at the address, they discover that no one lives there. Suspicious, Neale opens the suitcase. The bomb inside explodes, but Neale's quick reaction saves them both.

Neale awakens in the hospital, the prisoner of Scotland Yard Inspector Prentice (Percy Waram). Neale persuades Prentice to search the bombed-out cottage for evidence. About to be taken to jail, at the last minute Neale finds a microfilm of military secrets inside a portion of the cake hidden in a bird's nest. Officials insist that the top secret documents have only been taken out of a safe twice, the second time when Forrester's tailor, a man named Travers, was present. Neale recalls that the empty flat was leased in Travers' name.

Scotland Yard Headquarters of the Metropolitan Police Service, London

Scotland Yard is a metonym for the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS), the territorial police force responsible for policing most of London.

Prentice and Neale go to the tailor's shop, and find that Travers is Cost. Travers pretends not to recognize Neale, and calls a client about a suit. Then, seeing he is trapped, he commits suicide. When Neale dials the number he saw Travers use, Carla answers.

Neale slips away to confront Carla. Willi emerges, armed with a pistol, and admits he is the head of the spy ring. Another copy of the microfilm is sewn into the suit he received from Travers. Carla throws a candlestick, striking her brother's gun hand. The two men struggle, and Carla picks up the gun. When she refuses to hand it over to Willi, he tries to flee, but she shoots him dead. Forrester and several other Nazi agents chase Neale and Carla onto the roof. Inspector Prentice arrives and kills the remaining Nazis.

Later, Carla and Neale drive in the country, talking about their wedding. Neale is comically horrified when she mentions planning the "cake".


Comparison with the novel

Graham Greene's protagonist, Arthur Rowe (Stephen Neale in the film), is profoundly tormented with guilt for his having murdered his wife. In the movie, that is a simple mercy killing, an assisted suicide, and Neale holds his wife's hand as she passes away. In the book, Rowe slips the poison into his wife's milk – "how queer it tastes," she says – and leaves her to die alone. Despite the official finding of a mercy killing, he believes "that somewhere there was justice, and justice condemned him." He knows that the deed was not so much to end her suffering, as to end his own. This overwhelming sense of guilt, pervading the novel from beginning to end, is absent from the film.

The film omits all of Rowe's incarceration in Dr Forester's private asylum with amnesia, after the bomb in the booby-trapped case of books explodes. Gradually he works out that the institution is run by Nazi agents and that inmates who find out too much are eliminated. Painful though it is to regain his memories, he realises that he must remember all he can and get out to inform the police.

His love interest, Anna Hilfe (Carla Hilfe in the film), appears in Fritz Lang's movie to be uninvolved in her brother's spy activities. In the novel, she does not shoot her brother dead, and there is no rooftop shootout with Nazi agents. Her brother Willi Hilfe, armed with a gun with a single bullet, commits suicide, in a railway station lavatory, when he cannot escape. Anna (Carla) must forever fear exposure as a spy, just as Rowe (Neale) fears exposure as a murderer. They go on together, lovers, but hardly the happy and carefree couple portrayed in the film: "They had to tread carefully for a lifetime, never speak without thinking twice ... They would never know what it was not to be afraid of being found out." That, not the spy pursuit of the film, is at the heart of Graham Greene's novel.


Judd Blaise, writing for Allmovie, states "While it does not reach the same level of timeless classic as Carol Reed's adaptation of Greene's The Third Man four years later, Ministry of Fear stands as a well-made, thoroughly gripping and intelligent example of film noir." [1]

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