My Review of ‘Ministry of Fear’ (1944)


I’ll warn you right off that this review is rife with spoilers. The plot is way too complicated to discuss coherently without them. In any case, remember, you were warned.

This film starts with the main character, Stephen Neale (played by Ray Milland), being released from a loony bin, where he was put away after buying poison to mercy kill his terminally ill wife. He changed his mind about that, but she took the poison to ease her pain. So … I guess buying poison and making it available to a terminally ill person can get you locked up. At least temporarily.

But when the movie begins, we don’t know this yet. Stephen is free from the asylum, so he goes to the big village shindig for the Mothers of Free Nations, a charity. And after guessing a cake’s weight wrong and not winning it, he goes to a fortune teller who (despite Stephen’s request to know the future) tells him to go back and guess the cake’s weight again, giving him specific numbers. Well, wouldn’t you know, she’s given him the winning weight. So, he walks off with the cake, despite everyone’s attempt to persuade him to give it to a blond guy. Having just left the cuckoo’s nest, Stephen wants to have his cake and eat it, too.


Things go downhill fast when a Luftwaffe air raid holds up Stephen’s train. Did I mention this is taking place during World War II? In England? Well, now you know. Anyhow, turns out that a blind man sharing his train compartment isn’t blind after all. He steals Stephen’s cake, which doesn’t sit well with our hero. When Stephen chases the so-called blind man, the phoney shoots at him, until the Germans drop a bomb on him. Stephen finds the man’s gun, then goes on his merry way to London.

At that point, Stephen actually becomes suspicious and hires a detective to investigate the charity, these apparent Indian-givers of the cake variety. He is led to two other people, Willi (Carl Esmond) and Carla (Marjorie Reynolds), refugees from Nazi Austria who run the cake-giving charity. Then, Stephen winds up at a séance, along with that blond who really wanted that cake. But during the séance, the blond guy (named Cost, for what that’s worth) is shot to death. And since Stephen still has that damn gun with him, he must make a quick escape, lest he be accused of killing a guy over a freaking cake.


Carla tries to help Stephen, but it really doesn’t help that Willi is actually the head of a Nazi spy ring. But fortunately when the police are on the verge of arresting Stephen again, he manages to find microfilm of military info hidden inside part of the cake that got blown to bits (when the bomb hit the so-called blind man – remember?) and landed in a bird’s nest. And Stephen manages to get off the hook there.


Ultimately, Carla and Stephen end up together, after Carla shoots Willi and the cops kill the rest of the Nazis coming after them. They drive off into the sunset, talking about their wedding and (to Stephen’s horror) the wedding cake.


This film was directed by Fritz Lang, but has an almost Hitchcockian feel. It was based on the Graham Greene novel, in which things turned out the same, only different. In the book, Stephen did kill his wife and had to live with the overwhelming guilt of doing so. And Carla was part of the Nazi spy ring, unlike in the movie where she knew nothing of it. Willi shoots himself in the end, and Stephen and Carla go off to make a less-than-happy life together – each continually worried that their sordid past will be exposed.

Despite the Hollywood-ized ending in the film to what was truly a noir novel, the plot has enough darkness, twists and suspense to make it a worthy entry in the film noir canon.


While not nearly the caliber of the film adaptation of Greene’s book The Third Man, this picture gets at least one thumb up!


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