Ministry of Fear

Director: Fritz Lang
Screenplay: Seton I. Miller (based on the novel by Graham Greene)
Stars: Ray Milland (Stephen Neale), Marjorie Reynolds (Carla Hilfe), Carl Esmond (Willi Hilfe), Hillary Brooke (Mrs. Bellane #2), Percy Waram (Inspector Prentice), Dan Duryea (Cost / Travers the Tailor), Alan Napier (Dr. JM Forrester), Erskine Sanford (George Rennit)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1944
Country: U.S.
Ministry of Fear Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Ministry of FearMinistry of Fear, the third of four anti-Nazi films that German director Fritz Lang made during his tenure in Hollywood (the other three being Hangmen Also Die, Man Hunt, and Cloak and Dagger), is hardly one of the great director’s signature works, but it still holds up nicely as an example of the paranoid espionage thriller that Lang helped pioneer in the 1920s and that was particularly in vogue in Hollywood during the war years. Lang himself didn’t think much of the film since he was hamstrung by Seton I. Miller’s screenplay, which was adapted from Graham Greene’s 1943 novel (Lang admired the novel and had wanted to adapt it himself, but Paramount beat him to the rights). In an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, Lang claims that he was “terribly shocked” when he read Miller’s screenplay and tried unsuccessfully to get out of his contract. “I had signed a contract and I had to fulfill it,” he said, “and that’s all. I saw it recently on television, where it was cut to pieces, and I fell asleep.”

Lang, who was given to hyperbole and exaggeration regarding his own life and films, perhaps sells himself a bit short. Ministry of Fear is far from his greatest film, but it is hardly the soulless piece of studio hackery he makes it out to be. While most of the film’s problems can be traced back to the coincidences and stretches of credulity required by Miller’s screenplay (a villain all too conveniently killed in a bomb blast that all too conveniently allows a crucial piece of cake to survive intact, despite leaving an enormous crater in the ground, for example), Lang brings to the film a sometimes startling visual acuity that plays beautifully on noir-ish themes of paranoia, claustrophobia, and nightmare. As a whole the film doesn’t quite pull together, but it is filled with isolated moments of tense brilliance and visual panache.

The protagonist is Stephen Neale (Ray Milland), a variation on Hitchcock’s wrongfully accused innocent on the run from both the police and the true villains. The twist is that Neale isn’t entirely innocent: When we first meet him, he is being released from a mental asylum for a then-unstated crime for which he paid two years of his life. It is later revealed that he was put away not only for murder, but for the murder of his wife, although the exact nature of the killing is clarified in a way that eventually sheds sympathetic light on what would otherwise be seen as a heinous crime. After buying a ticket to London against the advice of his doctor, who reminds him that it is being blitzed nightly by the Germans, he wanders into a charity carnival, where he has his palm read and ends up winning a cake that was intended for someone else. That twist of fate puts Neale in the deadly crosshairs of a shadowy group of Nazi agents that wants him dead and whatever was hidden in the cake in their possession.

With no one to turn to, Neale takes it upon himself to ferret out his would-be killers in London, which leads him first to a comical drunk of a private investigator named George Rennit (Erskine Sanford) and later to the offices of the charity where he won the cake, which is run by a brother and sister from Austria, Carla (Marjorie Reynolds) and Willi (Carl Esmond). They are willing to help, but in a Lang film, no one is to be trusted, and the eagerness of characters with Germanic accents to assist him carries with it a whiff of a double-cross in the making. Neale crosses paths with other potentially nefarious characters, as well, including an icy, platinum blonde clairvoyant (a psychic fatale?) who leads a séance that results in a murder for which Neale is blamed. He is also being constantly trailed by a sinister figure (Percy Waram) in a black overcoat who casts a menacing shadow even when sitting in a chair trimming his fingernails—never a good sign in a Lang film.

Working with veteran cinematographer Henry Sharp (who had shot King Vidor’s The Crowd in 1928), Lang imbues even the most benign of locations with a sense of unease, which gives the entire film a slightly uncanny quality. The machinations of the plot are loud and fairly clumsy, with unanswered questions and conveniences that serve the screenwriter but not the story (the growing romance between Neale and Carla feels particularly strained, despite good performances by both Milland and Reynolds), yet Lang molds it into something that is consistently entertaining and at times genuinely enthralling. The film as a whole doesn’t really stick with you, but isolated moments and images do: an almost surreal chase through a marsh while bombs fall in the background, two unexpected gunshots in complete darkness, a villain dialing a phone with an obscenely large pair of phallic scissors. Without fully cohering, these bits and pieces burrow into your consciousness and stay there—the true hallmark of Lang’s unique cinematic sensibility.

Ministry of Fear Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Ministry of Fear is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.37:1
AudioEnglish Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • Video interview with Fritz Lang scholar Joe McElhaney
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Essay by critic Glenn Kenny
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateMarch 12, 2013

    Although one of Lang’s “minor” films, it is great to have Ministry of Fear on Blu-Ray, since its only appearance on home video in the U.S. was a VHS tape from 1998 that never made the leap to DVD. Criterion’s new 2K digital transfer was made from a 35mm safety fine-grain master. The resulting image, which was digitally polished to remove most instances of dirt and damage (a few scratches remain, but are negligible), is quite good. The black-and-white cinematography boasts excellent contrast and strong shadow detail while also maintaining a healthy level of film grain that is quite pleasing to the eye. I also have no complaints about the monaural soundtrack, which was transferred at 24-bit from the optical print tracks and digitally restored. Several moments in the film are punctuated with near silence, and there is barely a whisper of ambient hiss to be heard.
    The only supplements on the disc are the original theatrical trailer and a 17-minute interview with film scholar Joe McElhaney (author of The Death of Classical Cinema: Hitchcock, Lang, Minnelli), who usefully discusses the film in the context of Lang’s entire career, pointing out the thematic and stylistic connections with his more well-known films.

    Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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