MINISTRY OF FEAR (1943) by Graham Greene

Greene-Ministry-penguinA wartime story of espionage and guilt, this was the last and personal favourite of Graham Greene’s self-styled ‘entertainments,’ the term he used to differentiate his thrillers from his more mainstream novels, though several of his books fall into that category too (see the list below). It all begins when Arthur Rowe, in an England trying to cope with the horrors of the Blitz, wins a cake at a village fête and unwittingly gets involved with enemy agents …

I submit this review for Bev’s Vintage Mystery Challenge; Rich Westwood’s Crime of the Century meme; and Friday’s Forgotten Books meme hosted today by Todd Mason at his Sweet Freedom blog.

He said quickly, “Don’t tell me the past. Tell me the future.”

This book has a dark and dreamlike atmosphere, beginning from the opening sequence where a nostalgic return to the simple entertainments of childhood of a summer afternoon – a coconut shire, a fortune-teller, etc. – slowly but surely turn sinister. But then Rowe is a man haunted by his past. It turns out that he served a short sentence in prison for assisting in the mercy killing of his wife. And now he is being hounded by manifestations of his ongoing guilt in the shape of Nazi fifth-columnists who want what was hidden in a  cake that was handed over in error when he was mistaken for a spy. Rowe hires a private detective to track down the charity behind the fête but just seems to keep putting himself in harm’s way. There are several fine set pieces, including a séance climaxing with Rowe been framed for murder and a long section in  a clinic when he suffers amnesia after a bomb attack, before we come to the powerful and memorable finale in a public lavatory.

They had to tread carefully for a lifetime, never speak without thinking twice; they must watch each other like enemies because they loved each other so much.

I have always been a huge fan of Greene and was impressed at a very early age – but then, he was perhaps the first great living author that I encountered in my youth. By the time I was 18 (shhh … about thirty years go), I read all his extant novels (with the exception of the two he refused to have reprinted), and along with the underrated The Confidential Agent, this is the one of his ‘entertainments’ that I always thought managed best to combine thrills with Greene’s trademark moral and human complexity. The guilt-ridden hero, driven almost to the point of suicide, and the two refugees, a brother and sister, who he meets in his dark odyssey through the bombed out streets of London, makes for  particularly compelling characters within a spy mystery and really broaden its texture. Re-reading this wartime ‘entertainment’ after a gap of several decades was a real treat – his classic themes of isolation and guilt are brilliantly handled with a thriller plot that never loses its grip.

The Grahame Greene ‘Entertainments’

  • Stamboul Train (1932)
  • A Gun for Sale (1936)Greene-Ministry-penguin-classic
  • The Confidential Agent (1939)
  • The Ministry of Fear (1943)
  • The Third Man (1949) *
  • Loser Takes All (1955) *
  • Our Man in Havana (1958) *
  • The Tenth Man (1985) *

* not labelled ‘entertainments’ by Greene himself

 

ministry-01

Like practically all of Greene’s fiction, the book was quickly adapted for the cinema and it would have made a superb film by Hitchcock or Fritz Lang – and indeed the latter got the plum job of directing it, though sadly he had no control over the script.

“I’ll never clear myself behind bars!”

Arthur Rowe becomes ‘Stephen Neale’ and is played by Ray Milland, who is actually very good casting in a part that should require a fair amount of ambiguity and ambivalence. The film begins extremely well, with our protagonist waiting to be released from the  asylum, and then follows through fairly faithfully with the sequences at the fête and the séance and there is also a fine train sequence bridging the two.

“Nazis, bombs! They shouldn’t have let you out of that asylum Mr Neale.”

But after the first 35 minutes or so, following an atmospheric chase through bombed out London, the changes become more radical (predictably, but frustratingly, in this version, our protagonist does not in fact help end his wife’s suffering) and the film more lightweight, though at least we do have the great, and always under appreciated, Dan Duryea, to pep things up in the final ten minutes. The finished film lacks depth though has a strong cast and the basic premise to make a decent enough wartime thriller. One can only dream what might have been if Lang or Hitchcock had been allowed to make a much darker and faithful version, one that used Milland’s unusual screen persona so as to capitalise on the novel’s ambivalent and unstable protagonist and find an equivalent for the paradoxical conclusion, so as to make for a much more resonant exploration of characters in a time of conflict. But the first half hour or so is really good and the remaining 50 minutes are, if more conventional, perfectly entertaining too with several affection Expressionistic visual flourishes as one would expect from Lang. But first, start with the book. Trust me …

ministry-02

The Ministry of Fear (1944)
Director: Fritz Lang
Producer: Seton I Miller
Screenplay: Seton I Miller
Cinematography: Henry Sharp
Art Direction: Hans Dreier, Hal Pereira
Music: Victor Young
Cast: Ray Milland, Marjorie Reynolds, Carl Esmond, Dan Duryea, Hillary Brooke, Alan Napier, Percy Waram

DVD Availability: This has always been easy to find on home video. On top of that, in the US it was released on Blu-ray by Criterion, and by Koch on Europe. Both use the same terrific image transfer, which comes very highly recommended.

I submit this review for Bev’s 2017 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt in the ‘shadowy figure’ category:

04-vintage-golden-scavenger-2017

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

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This entry was posted in 2017 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt, Espionage, Film Noir, Five Star review, Friday's Forgotten Book, Graham Greene, Spy movies, World War II and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

43 Responses to MINISTRY OF FEAR (1943) by Graham Greene

  1. Paula Carr says:

    Cool! I’ll have to pick up both the book AND the film. I just recently saw “Our Man in Havana” for the first time recently, and other than putting a dachshund in peril and a rather serious continuity error involving said dachshund, I liked it better than Guiness’s other 50’s films. And I adored those.

  2. Sergio – Thanks for this post. I too went through all of Greene a long time ago. Now I want to re-read some of the “entertainments.” And the movie of MINISTRY is like a weird dream – Duryea with the enormous scissors.

  3. Colin says:

    That’s put me in the mood to rewatch this – I may put the nice Koch Blu-ray on tonight actually. You have me itching to pull the book down off the shelf now too.

    • That is very kind mate! I do like the Koch set though BIG CLOCK should have looked even better darn it!

      • Colin says:

        Ah, I haven’t watched that one yet, but it’s bound to be an upgrade on the DVD, right?
        Anyway, I picked up that set for a very low price in a sale so I won’t complain too much if there are a few imperfections.

        • The Blurry is very solid, don;t misunderstand me. It;’s just that I had the pleasure of watching a 35mm print at the BFI about a decade or so ago and it looked marvellous. The Blu-ray is much better than any DVD I have seen, don’t get me wrong. I just want Arrow of Criterion to really clean it up as it would make a marvellous special edition I think.

          • Colin says:

            I see, got it now. My only experience is the old US DVD, and a TV showing long before that, so I’ll probably be happy enough. Mind you, I wouldn’t gripe about an Arrow-style presentation of any title.

          • It is much better than the region 1 release, which was OK but a bit dark and dank, especially in the opening I found. The DVD Beaver comparison is to me a very fair one. The Blu is what Gary would probably call a bit ‘thick’ meaning a tad grainy. Having said that, Seitz and Farrow use so much depth of field that this is pretty much inevitable as they were not going to use the bag of tricks that Welles and Toland used (including quite a few double exposures) to do the same but maintain that crystal clarity they achieved. It is to me a very Wellesian Noir and I really do love the look and feel of it and the cast is just fabulous too. One wishes Milland could have played the character slightly more ambiguously as in the book – basically the same argument as Ministry in fact 🙂

          • Colin says:

            I need to dig into that Koch set asap – I’ve had it for a while now and all this talk has given me an itch that I’ll have to scratch quite soon.

          • DARK MIRROR looks the best of the three but they all look very good chum!

          • Colin says:

            Nice to be able to talk about degrees of goodness 🙂

          • That’s the nice one of the spectrum, I quite agree 😀

          • Colin says:

            Watched the film again for the first time in years. Frankly, I enjoyed it as much as ever and I thought it looked good on Blu – I guess it could be better yet but I’d say the glass is well over half full.
            It loses its way a bit in the middle, or maybe loses its intensity is more accurate, but it remains a strong and well shot film for all that.

          • I’d second that – it odes work on its own terms. The knowledge that Lang himself was disappointed because he wanted something much darker like the book shouldn’t really affect what we actually have after all (which I have been a little guilty of)

  4. I haven’t read Greene in too long, Sergio. Thanks for the nudge. As I read your post, I thought of the big differences between book and film. In cases like that, I wonder if it’s just better to see the two as completely different stories? As always, I appreciate your thoughtful discussion; it’s got me eager to look up some Greene…

  5. neer says:

    Sergio, you seem to like this book more than I do. In fact, this is the least favourite of Greene’s books that I have read. I loved the beginning at the fete but then the book just went downhill. If I remember correctly a midget was also thrown in somewhere which kind of confused me. However, that passage about ‘erased lines’ is pretty powerful.

    • Thanks Neeru – which are your favourites thus far?

      • neer says:

        Sergio, actually Greene is a great favourite since the time I read his POWER AND THE GLORY in college. THE END OF THE AFFAIR; THE HUMAN FACTOR, IT’S A BATTLEFIELD; OUR MAN IN HAVANNA; THE QUIET AMERICAN (the ending of which haunts me till date) are all great favourites. I love his non-fictional THE LAWLESS ROADS too. In fact, the only ones I have not really liked are this book and LOSERS TAKE ALL. And I didn’t enjoy THE THIRD MAN as much as I thought I would.

        Now after writing all this, I feel like picking up a Greene immediately. Which are your favourites?

        • Some really great choices there Neeru – of his earliest books I think IT’S A BATTLEFIELD is well worth rediscovering, as is CONFIDENTIAL AGENT. O much prefer BRIGHTON ROCK and POWER AND THE GLORY to his HEART OF THE MATTER from the more overly Catholic titles. I love his work and think A BRUNT OUT CASE is also unfairly neglected, though i can see why many prefer END OF THE AFFAIR and QUIET AMERICAN, which I think are superb. HONORARY CONSUL is probably his last truly great book for me and I think he held it in very high esteem.

  6. Great review Sergio! I loved this book, and I think Greene does himself a disservice by labelling it as just an entertainment. Yes, there are the thrilling and mystery elements, but it’s so much more than that. The exploration of Rowe’s character, for example, his inability to cope with feeling pity and the fact that Greene has us empathising with someone who regards himself as a murderer. There are plenty of moral and ethical dilemmas as well as a wonderfully conveyed atmosphere and a sense of what it was like to live through the Blitz. Fabulous book!

    • Thanks Karen – I think that is why I like tit so much much, as much for its subtext as its recreation of a time and place (and written, importantly, in media res). The alteration of Brighton Rock and ‘reclassify’ it not an an ‘entertainment’ is fascinating. I suspect that it was the religious dimension that caused that. Two of my favourite of his later books, End of the Affair and especially The Quiet American and The Honorary Consul seem to me to benefit enormously from his experiments with the thriller / mystery format.

  7. Santosh Iyer says:

    “…….sadly he (Fritz Lang)had no control over the script.”
    This was because the script writer was also the associate producer !
    I agree that the book is much much better than the film. By making unnecessary changes, the spirit and depth of the book are lost.

    • Although it was his first time also as producer, Seton Miller was a very successful and experienced screenwriter with lots of good credits to his name, including the original versions of Scarface and The Dawn Patrol as well as Here Comes Mr Jordan, but they were bound to iron our some of the book’;s most compelling elements that would have been censorable at the time or just unpalatable for a wartime thriller. A shame of course, but predictable.

  8. I’ve read a lot of Graham Greene’s work. His short stories are brilliant. Greene’s essays are scintillating. Great writer!

  9. Sergio, I’m definitely up for some Graham Greene reading. It’s been a very long time. I thought his prose was brilliant, sort of methodical and old school if I’m correct.

    • Thanks Prashant. I now think HONORARY CONSUL is perhaps the best place to start and then track back … I think old school is fair description, in the sense that the approach was very traditional – he never tried for what now might be considered modernist experiments in putting his prose on the page (although some of these tropes go back at least as far as Sterne so ‘modernist’ is an interesting way of putting it. Self-conscious might be another …)

  10. Matt Paust says:

    Haven’t read Greene since my college days, Sergio, and I can see it’s high time I got back to him. Compelling review!

  11. I actually liked the film more than you do, Sergio. In fact, it’s one of my Ray Milland faves. But I also enjoyed the book as well. I’ve only ever read two Graham Greene books, this one and END OF THE AFFAIR, but I’m going to take up your list of ‘entertainments’ and play catch-up.

  12. Terrific author, great book and very good film – I agree with all you say. Excellent review.

  13. tracybham says:

    I have not read much by Graham Greene; the only one I can remember is The Comedians and that was a while back. This one sounds perfect for me and I would enjoy the movie too. Glad you covered this book and this author, Sergio.

  14. Mike says:

    Great stuff, as always matey. I’m sure my copy of the novel is that of the unimpeachable Penguin Classics; in any event it’s terrific and can certainly be enjoyed as a genuine potboiler with those ongoing themes running underneath. Also how can anyone not wish to read a book called THE MINISTRY OF FEAR??? I went through a lengthy phase of reading Greene, inspired I think by chancing across BRIGHTON ROCK and going from there. For my part I didn’t dismiss the thrillers as ‘entertainments’ and enjoyed them equally, though I wound up placing THE END OF THE AFFAIR as slightly ahead of the pack and relished the sly wit of MONSIGNOR QUIXOTE. Still, I didn’t consider any of his novels to be without worth.

    I’ve never seen the movie, but agree that Ray Milland makes for great casting… Easy thing to say, when didn’t he?

    • I think you’d like the movie a lot Mike! And I agree, End of the Affair is one of his absolute best (and one of the few he wrote in the first person too). I should re-read Quixote actually …

  15. Pingback: “Was she getting sunbonnets on the brain?” #1943book roundup | Past Offences: Classic crime, thrillers and mystery book reviews

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