Surreal Noir at the Castro Theatre

  • by Erin Blackwell
  • Saturday September 30, 2017
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"Since the death of his wife, Rowe had never daydreamed; all through the trial he had never even dreamed of an acquittal. It was as if that side of the brain had been dried up; he was no longer capable of sacrifice, courage, virtue, because he no longer dreamed of them. He was aware of the loss: the world had dropped a dimension and become paper thin." That's from Graham Greene's 1943 book "The Ministry of Fear." Fritz Lang's 1944 film adaptation is one of 11 film noirs playing Monday nights at the Castro Theatre starting Oct. 2.

I saw "Ministry of Fear" as a kid on a small-screen black-and-white TV in the living room with the sun pouring in, when I should have been outside playing. I tried and failed to understand it. I loved hero Ray Milland instantly, instinctively, and I formed a weird attachment to blonde bombshell Hillary Brooke, who was not a nice person. At that age, I didn't understand much anyway: it was all adults acting inscrutably, beautifully dressed, moving through interesting interiors, getting upset about things. But "Ministry" took the cake.

Cake is the central metaphor of "Ministry." Under normal circumstances, cake symbolizes wholesome pleasure. In war-torn England, with eggs, butter, and milk rationed, cake was a sign that normalcy was still within reach. When Ray Milland wins a cake at a village f�te by stating its correct weight, his spirits lift, he feels lucky, maybe even blessed. Poor sod, he's instantly in the sights of a ruthless gang of Nazi spies who will stop at nothing, nothing, to recuperate that cake. Wholesome pleasure is now merely a ruse.

Some movies you saw as a kid turn out not to repay closer scrutiny. I've just re-watched "Ministry" on the Criterion DVD from my local library, twice. I took notes on the plot. I'm hell-bent on pinning down what the heck's going on in this flick that continues to tantalize and withhold, much like that unsung siren Hillary Brooke. With her acquired English accent, she played snobs in B movies. She was Lou Costello's love object, addressing him as Louis. She also mystified Basil Rathbone in three Sherlock Holmes films.

"Ministry" is the high point of Hillary Brooke's career. She's got two big scenes she performs flawlessly, dressed to the nines by Edith Head. A clairvoyant in league with the spies, she rigs a seance to accuse Ray of murdering his wife. Later, she pops up at someone else's apartment in sexy widow's weeds, a veil half-covering her face, like she's half in mourning, partially eclipsed, or turning a blind eye. She plays a five-minute tete-a-tete with Milland that's subtle, seductive, sinister. "Will I see you again?" she purrs. No.

Ray Milland has lost his cake, the only proof of his innocence, because it contains microfilm of Allied embarkation plans. He leads a thuglike Scotland Yard inspector out to a bomb crater that looks like an opera set. Everything in "Ministry" looks fake. This is its most brilliant quality, what Brecht called "alienation effect." You never forget you're watching sleight-of-hand. Call it camp, call it uncanny. The existential dread of Greene's prose morphs onscreen into the tension between layers of artifice, none of them reliable.

Thanks to small birds fighting over cake crumbs, a redeemed Ray accompanies the Inspector to a showdown with nemesis Dan Duryea, working as a tailor in a luxury establishment. Ray sits in a club chair before a wall-size mirror that shows us what he's looking at, disorienting the audience by usurping its role of spectator. Duryea dials a number using long shears, tells a client his suit's shoulders will settle, then rushes off to commit suicide. Ray tracks down the suit, and a gun battle ensues with the Nazi gang on the roof, a miracle of light and dark.

I left out the love interest, Marjorie Reynolds, a dyed blonde whose wobbly German accent might mean she's a fake German or a fake girlfriend. Like Duryea's bad English accent, every destabilizing element adds to the willful weirdness of "Ministry." Through it all Milland surfs with the aplomb of a Welshman well-schooled in the uncanny and adept at passing for English. Urbane, philosophical, and chivalrous, he's the ideal hero in this hall of mirrors. (Mon., Oct. 9, 5:30 & 9:20 p.m.) Not all the films are this good.