Ministry of Fear

Ministry of Fear
Ministry of Fear

VHS cover of Ministry of Fear
Directed by Fritz Lang
Produced by Buddy G. DeSylva
Written by Graham Greene (novel)
Seton I. Miller (screenplay)
Starring Ray Milland
Marjorie Reynolds
Carl Esmond
Hillary Brooke
Music by Victor Young
Miklos Rozsa
Cinematography Henry Sharp
Editing by Archie Marshek
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Release date(s) October 16, 1944 (U.S. release)
Running time 86 minutes
Country United States
Language English

Ministry of Fear is a 1944 film noir directed by Fritz Lang. Based on a novel by Graham Greene, the film tells the story of a man just released from a mental asylum who finds himself caught up in an international spy ring in London during the Blitz, pursued by foreign agents and incriminated for murder; all as a result of having visited a village fair and winning a cake after being given its weight by a fortune teller. The original music for the film was composed by Miklós Rózsa and Victor Young.


Plot synopsis

In wartime England during the Blitz, Stephen Neale (Milland) is released from Lembridge Asylum. While waiting for a train to London, Neale visits a village fête hosted by the Mothers of Free Nations charity. He guesses the weight of a cake for a shilling, and is urged to go to the palm reader's tent to have his fortune told by Mrs. Bellane (Dyne), an older woman. He asks her to ignore the past and tell the future, which startles her. She cryptically tells him to take another guess at the weight of the cake at 4 pounds, 15 1/2 ounces. Neale does so and wins the prize. Then a young blond man hurries to the fête to see Mrs. Bellane. Afterward, people try to persuade Neale to give the cake to the blond man, but he refuses.

Neale departs Lembridge with only a blind man (Wyatt) sharing his compartment. Neale offers him some cake. Neale sees the blind man crumbling his portion. When the train stops during a Luftwaffe air raid, Neale's companion turns out not to be blind after all. He strikes Neale with his cane, steals the cake, and flees, with Neale in pursuit. The man shoots at him from a ruined cottage, but is killed by a German bomb. Neale finds his revolver and continues on to London.

Neale decides to investigate the Mothers of Free Nations, and hires private detective George Rennit (Sanford) to help him. Neale meets Willi (Esmond) and Carla Hilfe (Reynolds), refugees from Nazi-occupied Austria who run the charity. Willi obligingly takes him to Mrs. Bellane's London mansion (followed by Rennit). Neale is shocked to discover that this Mrs. Bellane (Brooke) is a beautiful young medium. She invites them to stay for her séance. Among the other attendees are artist Martha Panteel (Field), psychiatrist Dr. Forrester (Napier), and Mr. Cost (Duryea), the blond man at the fête. After the lights are dimmed, a mysterious voice claims she was poisoned by Stephen, disconcerting Neale. Then a shot rings out - Cost is found dead with a gunshot to the head. Neale admits to having the blind man's gun. He flees with Willi's help.

Neale goes to Rennit's office, only to find it ransacked. He talks to Carla. An air raid forces the two to shelter in an Underground station, where Neale reveals that he had planned to euthanizing his terminally ill wife. He changed his mind, but she committed suicide anyway, using the poison he had bought. Due to the circumstances, Neale received a light sentence of two years at the asylum.

The next morning, Carla hides Neale at a friend's bookstore. Neale spots a book by Forrester, The Psychology of Nazism. Carla reveals that Forrester is one of her volunteers as well as a consultant for the Ministry of Home Security. Neale is convinced that Carla's organization is a front for Nazi spies. Carla checks if the people Neale suspects are charity volunteers. Almost all are. Carla tells Willi about her discovery, and admits that she loves Neale.

That afternoon, Neale goes to Panteel's flat, only to find Mrs. Bellane. The two verbally spar. He flees when Panteel returns and begins screaming for the police.

Later, Carla tells Neale what she has learned. The bookseller asks the couple to deliver some books to a "Mr. Macklin" since they are going out. When they arrive at the address, they discover that no one lives there. Suspicious, Neale opens the suitcase supposedly containing the books. It actually contains a bomb that explodes, but Neale and Carla escape unharmed.

Neale awakens in the hospital, the prisoner of Scotland Yard Inspector Prentice (Waram). Neale persuades Prentice to search the bombed-out cottage for evidence. Neale finds a portion of the cake. Inside is a microfilm containing military secrets. Government officials insist that the top secret documents have only been taken out of a safe twice, the second time when Forrester's tailor, a man named Travers, was present. Neale recalls that the empty flat was leased in Travers' name.

Prentice and Neale go to the tailor's shop. Neale is shocked to discover that "Travers" is Cost. Cost pretends not to recognize Neale, and calls a client about an order for a suit. Then, seeing he is trapped, he commits suicide. When Neale dials the number he saw Cost use, Carla answers.

Neale slips away to see Carla. Willi emerges, armed with a pistol, and admits he is the head of the spy ring. Another copy of the microfilm is sewn into the suit he received from Cost. Carla throws an object, striking her brother's gun hand. The two men struggle, and Carla picks up the gun. When she refuses to hand it over to Willi, he tries to flee, but she shoots him dead. Forrester and several other Nazi agents chase Neale and Carla onto the roof. The shootout ends when Inspector Prentice arrives and kills the remaining Nazis.

Later, Carla and Neale drive in the country, planning their wedding. However, Neale is vehemently against having a wedding cake.


Judd Blaise, writing for Allmovie, states "While it does not reach the same level of timeless classic as Carol Reed's adaptation of Greene's The Third Man four years later, Ministry of Fear stands as a well-made, thoroughly gripping and intelligent example of film noir."[1]

Comparison to the novel

Graham Greene's protagonist, Arthur Rowe (Stephen Neale in the film), is profoundly tormented with guilt for his having murdered his wife. In the movie, that is a simple mercy killing, an assisted suicide, and Neale holds his wife's hand as she passes away. In the book, Rowe slips the poison into his wife's milk -- "how queer it tastes," she says -- and leaves her to die alone. Despite the official finding of a mercy killing, he believes "that somewhere there was justice, and justice condemned him." He knows that the deed was not so much to end her suffering, as to end his own. This overwhelming sense of guilt, pervading the novel from beginning to end, is absent from the film.

His love interest, Anna Hilfe (Carla Hilfe in the film), appears in Fritz Lang's movie to be uninvolved in her brother's spy activities. In the novel, she does not shoot her brother dead, and there is no rooftop shootout with Nazi agents. Her brother Willi Hilfe, armed with a gun with a single bullet, commits suicide, in a railway station lavatory, when he cannot escape. Anna (Carla) must forever fear exposure as a spy, just as Rowe (Neale) fears exposure as a murderer. They go on together, lovers, but hardly the happy and carefree couple portrayed in the film: "They had to tread carefully for a lifetime, never speak without thinking twice ... They would never know what it was not to be afraid of being found out." That, not the spy pursuit of the film, is at the heart of Graham Greene's novel.


Actor Role
Ray Milland Stephen Neale
Marjorie Reynolds Carla Hilfe
Carl Esmond Willi Hilfe/Mr. Macklin
Hillary Brooke Mrs. Bellane #2
Percy Waram Inspector Prentice
Dan Duryea Cost/Travers
Alan Napier Dr. Forrester
Erskine Sanford George Rennit
Eustace Wyatt Blind Man
Mary Field Martha Panteel
Aminta Dyne Mrs. Bellane #1


  1. ^ Ministry of Fear (1944) The New York Times

External links

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