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Film / Ministry of Fear

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Ministry of Fear is a 1944 film directed by Fritz Lang. It is a Film Noir spy story starring Ray Milland as Stephen Neale, a man who has just been released from an insane asylum. While waiting for a train to London, he goes to a charity fete in a small town. He enters a contest to guess the weight of a cake, then goes to a fortune teller, who tells him what weight to guess. As he's leaving with the cake, another man arrives and visits the fortune teller. The people giving the cake away then tell Stephen that they were wrong and the other man guessed correctly, but Stephen says that his first guess was still closer, and leaves with the cake.

Sure enough, the cake is a MacGuffin that Nazi spies really, really want to obtain. After escaping one assassin, Stephen goes to the Mothers of Free Nations, the charity that was running the fete. He meets the charity's directors, Austrian anti-Nazi siblings Carla and Willi, and with their help investigates a tangled story of espionage and murder.

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Ministry of Fear was based on a novel by Graham Greene. Neither Greene nor Lang liked the film, mainly because of Executive Meddling that imposed a happier ending, but in latter days it's regarded as one of Lang's best Hollywood film noirs.


Tropes:

  • The Big Board: The Ministry of Home Security (which was real) has a map of Europe in which they can project photos, like the plans for Channel mines that the Nazis are trying to obtain.
  • Climbing Climax: Stephen and Carla driven to the roof of their building. Justified in this instance as they see Nazis climbing the stairs below them.
  • Concealment Equals Cover: Averted when Carla shoots Willi through a door; see Darkened Building Shootout below.
  • Darkened Building Shootout: The climactic shootout with Nazi spies takes place on a stairwell lit only by their muzzle flashes. The scene where Carla shoots Willi is another example—Willi slams a door shut, followed by Carla pulling the trigger inside a darkened room, with a hole appearing in the door. Willi is dead on the other side.
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  • Driven to Suicide: Travers the Nazi spy shoots himself after realizing that he can't get away.
  • Driving a Desk: Very obvious as Stephen and Carla are driving down the coast at the end.
  • Fortune Teller: The woman at the fete who reads Stephen's palm. After he accidentally says the code phrase, she tells him the weight of the cake.
  • Impairment Shot: A fuzzy shot from Stephen's POV when he's waking up after the bomb blast.
  • MacGuffin: Played straight, with the secret info hidden in the cake, which turns out to be "embarkation plans on our Channel minefields". In true MacGuffin fashion, the film does not attempt to explain why the whole elaborate cake exchange was necessary, when the spies could have just handed the film over.
  • Mercy Kill: Why Stephen was in the asylum in the first place. Actually, he didn't even do the mercy kill. He got the poison for his dying wife, but she took it herself.
  • Obfuscating Disability: A blind man takes a seat next to Stephen on the train. He isn't really blind. He's a Nazi, after the cake.
  • Sleep Cute: When the all clear sounds after the air raid, Stephen discovers Carla nestled up to him, asleep. He's pleased.
  • Spooky Séance: Stephen traces the fortune teller to London. He finds a completely different woman by that same name, who works as a medium, and promptly has her join her spooky seance. Just as the medium is uttering some things that make Stephen really uncomfortable, a shot rings out, and Stephen is framed for murder.
  • Spy Speak: Besides the Trust Password below, there is a scene where Travers the tailor and Nazi spy calls his superior. Travers speaks in fairly obvious code about how there's "no hope at all", supposedly about getting a suit ready, but really about his escape. After that conversation Traves dashes into a side room and kills himself.
  • Tempting Fate: See You Wouldn't Shoot Me below.
  • Trust Password: The whole story unfolds after Stephen accidentally utters the code phrase, telling the palm reader to ignore the past and tell him the future. She then tells him the weight of the cake.
  • You Wouldn't Shoot Me: "You wouldn't shoot your brother, Carla", says Willi. She does.
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