Steven Neale (Ray Milland) has spent the last couple of years in a mental asylum, but today he is being released. He cannot wait to be among crowds once more, and even though there's a war on, he plans to head for London and enjoy his freedom. He shakes hands goodbye with the head of the institute and makes his way to the railway station; after buying his tickets he notices a charity fayre taking place nearby and after asking the man in the booth to keep an eye on his luggage, he goes over in the hope it might cheer him up... but soon he is unwittingly embroiled in a conspiracy.
This film-noirish spy thriller was adapted by Seton I. Miller from Graham Greene's novel, but it's more a Fritz Lang film than a recreation of a Greene work. There's a strange, almost dreamlike quality to the movie, especially in the opening scenes, an eerie calm before the storm that is tremendously atmospheric and helps later on when the plotting grows more convoluted. It's enough to know that Neale isn't mad, but there really is a conspiracy going on and he's stumbled upon a Nazi scheme - mere minutes out of the asylum too, talk about bad luck.
What happens at the fayre is that Neale ends up surrounded by twittering middle aged ladies who invite him to guess the weight of a large cake. If he gets it right, he wins it, so he guesses, gets it wrong and is then herded into the tent of the resident clairvoyant. After crossing her palm with silver (literally) he listens to what she has to say, but it's what he says that apparently has significance; the fortune teller lets him what the exact weight of the cake is, he wins it and just as he is leaving he is stopped and informed that another man (Dan Duryea, not given enough to do) has won the cake instead.
Neale is having none of this, and walks away, but he might have been better giving up his prize considering what happens next: on the train, he shares a carriage with a blind man who knocks him out, steals the cake and shoots at him when pursued. All this while German bombs are dropping, and one hits the "blind" man too. But now Neale is in over his head, yet determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, and Lang fashions a story where the puzzles and enigmas are more memorable than the actual scheming. Neale is buffeted around between a seance where a man is killed and Scotland Yard who think he's the killer.
There is romantic interest, too, and although Neale has a tragic past in that he assisted in his terminally ill wife's suicide (that's what landed him in the asylum) he makes friends with an Austrian brother and sister, Will Hilfe (Carl Esmond) and his sibling Carla (Marjorie Reynolds struggling with the accent). It's Carla who takes a fancy to him, but who can he really trust in this world of paranoia and double crosses? Examination of the narrative finds absurdities, such as the spies fronted by a group of middle aged women, but it all makes a kind of nightmarish sense while you're watching. In truth, after that superb first half hour Ministry of Fear settles into a more conventional spy chase, but Lang still finds room for striking weirdness and menace (Duryea dialling the telephone with a large pair of scissors, for example). Not quite as good as its reputation, the film has its rewards. Music by Victor Young.
Tyrannical, monocle-sporting, Austrian-born director who first became established in Germany, significantly due to his second wife Thea von Harbou who wrote many of his scripts for him including famous silents Dr Mabuse the Gambler, the two-part Die Niebelungen, revolutionary sci-fi Metropolis, Spione and Lang's first sound effort, the celebrated M (which catapulted Peter Lorre to fame).
He had caught the interest of the Nazis by this time, so after another couple of Dr Mabuse films he decided to flee the country rather than work for them (von Harbou stayed behind), and arrived in America. There he was quickly snapped up by Hollywood producers to create a string of memorable thrillers, such as Fury, You Only Live Once, Man Hunt, and the World War II-themed Hangmen Also Die, which fed into a talent for film noir he took advantage of in the forties. Some of these were Ministry of Fear, Scarlet Street, The Woman in the Window and Secret Behind the Door, noirish Western Rancho Notorious and The Big Heat. After the fifties and one final Mabuse film, Lang had difficulty getting work due to his bad-tempered reputation and increasing blindness, but stayed a personality in the movie world right up to his death.