The Intervals of Paranoia: on MINISTRY OF FEAR (Lang, 1944)

A good film throughout until Milland and a thrillingly impenetrable, stone-faced, Percy Waram revisit the bomb crater from the beginning, at which point it becomes a great film. Milland has to prove that what he knows, what we know, happened did in fact happen. At which point begins a series of intervals that characterize the final 30 minutes of the film. Intervals, which like the city lights of London during The Blitz, are open or closed, on or off.

  1. Photo negatives discovered in a bird’s nest, after sifting through a bomb crater.

2. A crossfade from place to map. From the image of a discovery to the image that is that discovery.

3. Then the sequence at the suit shop, where Milland speaks to the doubled Travers/Cost — this plays with eye-line so radically I rewound it a few times just to make sure I saw it correctly. The deep focus, everything behind Milland is revealed to be a mirror. Calling it a reveal is perhaps a stretch, because early in the sequence one can see it’s a mirror, but one might not necessarily notice. Only at the end of the sequence does the placement of the action in front of a mirror become essential. Travers is revealed to be Cost, Cost is Travers. That this should happen in front of a mirror reveals the mirror again. What it seems that Milland is seeing offscreen isn’t offscreen at all, it’s right in front of him, so it is also behind him. What he sees is what he sees, but what we see is him seeing something unseen, until it becomes clear we’ve been seeing it all along with him.

At the beginning of the sequence, Waram enters through the curtains in a single medium. Then back in the master that contains Milland and the doubled Travers/Cost, he appears to be entering into the room again, seen in the mirror. Are we seeing a repeated action, or is there more space for Waram to cross than is described in the shot?

Images are images, trust isn’t truth.

4. Another interval — Milland enters one door, we watch it close behind him. We cut to a closed door from an angle that suggests this is the reverse side of the same door. Milland enters through this door. Is there an intervening space that is never revealed or do we see an action repeat itself? It’s not entirely clear what’s happened, because it’s not entirely clear what we’ve seen.

5. Photo negatives again- from a shot in a dark room to a dead body seen in a lit hallway.

Lights are turned on and off, this isn’t only what paranoia looks like, this is how paranoia does its looking. A man pretending to be blind, blackout schedules because the city is being bombed. From hiding out in a bookstore to an apartment with an empty bookshelf. Sarris says Lang’s is the cinema of nightmare, and that the plots go inexplicably sentimental at the very end. I would disagree however, that it’s inexplicable. What is a dream but the answer to, the photo negative of, a nightmare? This story only ends one way, can only end one way, it’s just not the way we happen to see.

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