When the clock struck twelve for Cinderella, the fantasy was over. In Fritz Lang’s world, that’s just the start of the adventure. The fairy tale allusion is surely intentional, and certainly Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) must feel like he’s waking up from a (dark) dream: Imprisoned in an asylum for mercy-killing his sick wife, he promises upon release to lead a quiet, uneventful life. First, though, he wants to hear, see and be around people (constantly, this espionage tale feels as if it is grasping at, striving for the humanity that its Nazi villains would quash without a second thought). London is the destination, but first there’s a stopover at a county fair where Neale inadvertently procures a pastry with a secret baked inside. A faux-blind hitman attacks while the SS blitzes a nearby munitions factory. One of them doesn’t walk away. From there it’s a pulp pileup: a lithe psychic (introduced, single shot, as both shadowed devil and hallowed angel), an Expressionist seance (the spirit of Mabuse is present), Dan Duryea (flaunting tailor’s shears like Carradine the kitchen knife in Kill Bill). There’s even a knock at modern art when a Picasso-like graphic reveals itself as a doorbell—but where, exactly, do you press? (Is this caustic bit of satire Lang’s? Source novelist Graham Greene’s? Another’s barb?) An old-biddy patriot’s group and an antique bookshop (“Sometimes I loathe people who like to read”) each front for more sinister goings-on, and there’s something off (or is there?) about Carla (Marjorie Reynolds), the Austrian gal who falls for Neale. No one is fully in the moral right: Neale wonders if killing his wife was the right thing. The blonde femme gets the weightiest challenge (“You wouldn’t shoot your brother, Carla?”). Well of course she would—this is WWII, but it’s also planet Earth. Lang has no illusions of angelic or demonic purity. Everyone’s a mess of contradictions, and even a happy ending can be corrupted by a seemingly harmless (and hilarious) utterance—let them not eat cake. Wrapped up in that punchline, of course, is an all-too-real horror: how easily history becomes an ephemeral jest.
Ministry of Fear (1944)