by Tony Dayoub
The softly lit visage of fortune teller Mrs. Bellane (Hillary Brooke, pictured above) is a reminder, mid-way through 1944's Ministry of Fear, that director Fritz Lang's films frequently (and almost obstinately) take place in dread-suffused, self-contained worlds. The setting for this noir is no different. An anti-Nazi propaganda film adapted from a novel by Graham Greene, Ministry of Fear plays out as if it were a dark nightmare in the head of protagonist Stephen Neale (Ray Milland). There are markers from the real world sketchily providing a backdrop that is vaguely lifelike. But much like in Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, in which the labyrinthine New York streets don't resemble any Manhattan we're familiar with, Neale's London bears only the remotest affinity to its real-world counterpart.
Perhaps it stems from what might be Neale's state of mind at the start of Ministry of Fear. Sitting alone in a dark room, Neale's attention is intensely focused on a clock, its long and prominent pendulum swinging to and fro as the minutes slowly tick away. As we soon find out, Neale is awaiting his release from a mental asylum, and when the clock strikes 6, Neale makes an odd gesture, raising his hands slowly off his armrests before bringing them down again and gripping the chair, as if bracing himself for what's to come next. The world he walks out into is an eerily quiet and windy one where the shadows of tree branches seem to scrape the walls of the asylum. Think of it as the beginning of Neale's fall down into his very own rabbit hole and of the gesture as the first signal that things are somehow off in this realm.
As we plunge deeper into the besieged purgatory that is London during the Blitz, undelineated environments vie with well-defined ones. Rooms mostly have empty walls. There are no adornments to make them feel inhabited unless there's a specific need for a prop that signifies something important in the plot. Exteriors are often as silent as interiors, making it hard to ignore that most of the film is shot on soundstages. But then, isn't that what it feels like when you're locked in a dream, as if nothing exists outside of the mindscape you've framed within your imagination? No one save Neale seems to exist once they leave the frame, as if each person is solely there to move the plot forward as required by the film's demands. In one rare instance when diegetic sound makes its way into the film, sirens warning of an impending attack prompt Neale and his love interest, Carla Hilfe (Marjorie Reynolds) to head towards the Underground for shelter. We see it littered with folks who are also hiding, but no one acknowledges Neale or Carla, not even when Neale borrows a hat from a man laying next to him in order to hide from a mysterious man shadowing him.
In fact, Neale freely signals for assistance from people who aid him along the way—inviting a private detective (Erskine Sanford) to follow him and Carla's brother Willi (Carl Esmond) on a jaunt to Mrs. Bellane's for a seance; nodding his head to alert a cop to the presence of a Nazi double agent at a tailor's shop—in plain view from villains who mean to terminate him. But as long as Lang leaves the evildoers out of frame or avoids pointing the camera directly at their face, they never notice. It's as if the blackness that often envelops Neale extends outside of Ministry of Fear's perspective to form a shield around its prime mover. It is the visual logic of a dream... or a nightmare. For all we know, Neale is still sitting in that room at the asylum, spellbound by the pendulum which momentarily dissolves into view once more during the pivotal seance Mrs. Bellane ministers before things truly start to go awry. It's one more suggestion that in Ministry of Fear life truly may be but a dream.
Ministry of Fear is out this week on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection.