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Sunday, February 28, 2016

MINISTRY OF FEAR (1944)

Top dog in his German/UFA days, the great Fritz Lang fought for work & reputation during his two decade Hollywood run, slowly losing altitude & quality assignments. Often lumped with Hitchcock as a Master of Suspense, it’s a simplification that does neither director much justice.* But just this once, Lang really does seem to be trying for the Hitchcock Touch in an innocent-man-on-the-run British picaresque; ambivalent blonde beauty on the side. It’s got THE 39 STEPS/’35 written all over it, in spite of coming out of a novel by Hitchcock agnostic Graham Greene. Ray Milland plays neutral to fine effect as a compromised man-with-a-past who stumbles into a Nazi Spy Ring at a village charity fair. Soon, he’s a wanted man trying to clear his name and solve a series of fast escalating crimes as Fifth Columnists & Scotland Yard gain ground on him. Scripter Seton I. Miller (who also produced) leaves too many good ideas hanging (like those huge tailor’s scissors Dan Duryea’s villain uses to dial his phone . . . Yikes!), and Marjorie Reynolds leaves little impression at all (on Milland or the film) as romantic interest. But the film is never less than a pleasure to watch, with expressive artificial studio sets and too many good bits to miss even when things don’t quite add up. Lang would fix all that soon enough on WOMAN IN THE WINDOW and SCARLET STREET/’45, his Hollywood peak. (There’s your DOUBLE-BILL.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Hitchcock always acknowledged Lang as an early influence, but he may also have nipped this film’s elderly book shop owner, and darkening sales floor, for VERTIGO/’58.

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