Fritz Lang’s third wartime anti-Nazi film is an Alfred Hitchcock-type spy chase taken from a psychological novel by Graham Greene, with the psychology angle transferred mostly to physical threats — ticking clocks, a mystery cake, and German bombs in the Blitz. Ray Milland is cool and collected for a man just released from a mental asylum, and proves up to the task of defeating a Nazi conspiracy.
Ministry of Fear
Region B Blu-ray
1944 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 86 min. / Street Date August 27, 2018 / available from Powerhouse Films UK / £14.99
Starring: Ray Milland, Marjorie Reynolds, Carl Esmond, Hillary Brooke, Percy Waram, Dan Duryea, Alan Napier, Erskine Sanford, Byron Foulger.
Cinematography: Henry Sharp
Film Editor: Victor Young
Original Music: Victor Young
Written by Seton I. Miller from the novel by Graham Greene
Produced by Seton I. Miller
Directed by Fritz Lang
Why do we go for certain Region B Blu-ray imports, even when we already own domestic disc releases? The big deal for most collectors are the extras. Criterion’s added value items are light compared to the extras obtained and produced for this UK release of Fritz Lang’s wartime spy chase thriller — Indicator includes an irreplaceable audio recording of Lang speaking at a screening Q&A session, in 1962.
Fritz Lang is one of the Andrew Sarris pantheon directors whose filmography fits neatly within the construct of the 1960s Auteur Theory. But I feel that he’s more interesting as an inventor and innovator of 20th- century thriller genres. As has been harped on in this column many times before, Fritz Lang appears to have invented the modern spy film genre, adapting most of its distinguishing features from the thrillers of pulp fiction and the movies. His first films in Hollywood were fierce examinations of American crime and the nature of justice, as seen in the anti-lynching drama Fury, the Bonnie & Clyde tragedy You Only Live Once and even the ‘crime is not profitable’ light comedy-cum-musical You and Me. But after a couple of westerns at Fox the war came, and Lang applied his skills to high-tension espionage fantasies emphasizing the new word struggle. Man Hunt is a London-set spy vs. spy saga about an English sportsman who trains his high-powered rifle on Adolf Hitler. The leftist Hangmen Also Die! confects a fictional thriller around the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, detailing a Czech communist cell that bands together to resist the Nazi crackdown that follows.
Invited to a new studio, Fritz Lang’s next would be an adaptation of Graham Greene’s just-published novel Ministry of Fear. It takes place in a setting similar to Man Hunt, but the tone has changed entirely. Instead of a fearless adventurer, the hero is a neurotic nursing a guilt complex and ensnared in a shadowy conspiracy. It would seem to be perfect Lang film material.
Newly released from an asylum, Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) wins a prize cake at an English country fair, only to find that the fair’s staff intended it to be won by a mysterious Mr. Cost (Dan Duryea). When his train is stopped by an air raid, a blind man steals the cake, but is blown up in the Nazi bombardment. Motivated to make sense of the mystery, Neale contacts the war relief charity that sponsored the country fair and meets its charming organizers, Austrian refugees Willi and Carla Hilfe (Carl Esmond & Marjorie Reynolds). Stephen and Willi attend a séance given by Mrs. Bellane (Hillary Brooke of Invaders from Mars). More than one person from the fun-fair attends, along with noted anti-Nazi author J.M. Forrester (Alan Napier). The mysterious Mr. Cost shows up at the last minute, and when the room goes dark a murder takes place. Suspected as the killer, Stephen goes on the run pursued by a strange man with a nail file (Percy Waram). An eccentric private detective he had hired, George Rennit (Erskine Sanford) ends up in a situation that only compounds Neale’s status as a wanted man. With both Scotland Yard and what seems to be a nest of spies on his tail, Stephen can only turn to the sympathetic Carla And Willi. But are they part of the conspiracy as well?
Ministry of Fear is Fritz Lang’s second and last film for Paramount. Lotte Eisner’s biography tells us that Lang’s customary contract demand for revision rights was accidentally omitted from this particular deal, so he was forced by writer / associate producer Seton I. Miller not to stray from the script. That explanation almost sounds fishy, as almost every detail in the film follows Fritz Lang’s recipe for a spy show in the classic Dr. Mabuse tradition. The main change is that the emphasis is on the luckless victim instead of an evil mastermind.
Even the title sounds like a Langian motto for paranoia, like the phrase ‘Empire of Crime’ from his political pulp prophecy The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. This show has striking similarities with Lang’s later, brilliant swan song feature The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, including a murder at a clairvoyant’s séance and more than one character with a double identity. But the basic premise is the very Hitchcockian situation of a helpless hero caught in an invisible conspiracy, watching his options close as an unseen group of villains kills his friends and frames him for the crimes. Author Graham Greene was reportedly not happy with the movie, which downplayed the Neale character’s neuroses. In the book Neale suffers a real nervous breakdown. He himself fears that he’s just going crazy, that the web of spies may be a paranoid delusion.
Some details play like imitations of very original ideas from earlier Lang pictures. The fake cake-guessing scheme seems a highly unlikely method of passing messages between spies. The fake blind man reminds us of the balloon vendor in Lang’s masterpiece ‘M’, but minus the audiovisual poetry. A blind man hit by a Nazi bomb sounds more like a cruel joke in a surreal Buñuel drama.
The film of Ministry of Fear is less chaotic. Its hero is perplexed but remains reasonably composed. The script imposes a battery of superficial visuals to stress the character’s anxiety, but without much effect — ticking clocks, an emphasis on strange objects like that mystery cake. The wartime rationing of eggs makes the cake quite a prize, even without its holding the MacGuffin-like secret the spies wish to ferret to Germany. The film’s best depiction of psychological distress is a key image where Neale waits in a tailor’s shop for what might be a murderous conspirator. Sitting in a medium shot, Neale observes the room around him. We only see what’s reflected in a large mirror behind him, and we can’t tell exactly what he’s looking at — does he see what we see, or is a man sneaking up on him? The image suggests a psychic detachment from his environment, an anxious, helpless isolation.
Lang’s most interesting visual effect is an almost-too clever final gag involving a bullet hole in a door. It’s the kind of trick that to be most effective would require theater managers to fade the house lights on cue, as was reportedly done for Terence Young’s Wait Until Dark, much later. Lang’s sketch to show his crew how the gag works was published in Lotte Eisner’s biography. The shot really works on a reasonably large theater screen: all is darkness except for this sudden round point of light. The student audience long ago at UCLA applauded the fancy trick shot, but at home the graphic simplicity may be lost because the ‘action’ is so tiny on the screen. Viewers sometimes don’t even see it happen.
Ray Milland’s relatively relaxed hero is somewhat atypical of Fritz Lang. Stephen Neale isn’t as casual about danger as James Bond, but even as a desperate fugitive he has plenty of time to function socially and grow fond of the blonde Carla. He trades jokes with the jovial Willy, and matches wits with the seductive mystery woman Mrs. Bellane. About halfway through the show we find out why Neale had been sent to the asylum. The unhappy, sordid truth makes sense, but it seems out of keeping with the polished Paramount world around Stephen Neale. It looks as if his ordeal is meant to have a therapeutic effect, but he really doesn’t look or act like he needs to be cured.
So what we have is a set of beautifully conceived and directed espionage situations that don’t quite fully reach Langian heights of drama or tension. Ministry of Fear is great fun the first time through, especially for Fritz Lang fans that can appreciate his style. Others may find it a bit tame.
Ray Milland is his usual utterly charming and likeable self. The sweet Marjorie Reynolds eventually fills a Kriemhild-like ‘blood revenge’ function, but one that totally lacks the violent edge given other Lang heroines. Carl Esmond is too obviously chosen as a nice guy Austrian, a dodge that in 1944 surely fooled nobody. Hillary Brooke makes for some sensational visuals, but her contribution is limited to a few sultry Mata Hari gestures. Also underused yet wholly effective is the great Dan Duryea, who instills maximum menace into his couple minutes’ worth of screen time. Duryea injects tension at one point just by toying with a large pair of tailor’s scissors, disturbingly close to Stephen Neale’s stomach. Fritz Lang must have been impressed with the actor, for he claimed plum parts in Lang’s next two movies, The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street.
Powerhouse Indicator’s Region B Blu-ray of Ministry of Fear is a fine encoding of this handsome studio picture, set in England but shot in Hollywood. The studio exteriors are in keeping with the Paramount house style of the era — and Fritz Lang’s own preference for a strictly controlled image. With the rest of the pre-1948 Paramount library, the show is held by Universal, which is why PH’s UK disc is limited to Region B. If you order this, make certain you have an all-region player.
The draw in this case are new extras. Indicator typically packs its disc product with menu items, sought out or produced with the same care seen in top U.S. labels. In this case they’ve outdone Criterion’s 2013 disc release. Critic Tony Rayns and film executive and former BFI official Adrian Wooten host visual essays, on the film and Grahame Greene respectively. Tony Rayns begins his talk by debunking the old story that Lang fled Germany the same afternoon he was propositioned by Josef Goebbels to head the Nazi movie industry — Rayns says that Lang’s passport showed that he continued to enter and exit the country, likely to finalize his divorce from Thea von Harbou.
The expert analysis continues with Neil Sinyard’s audio commentary. A 39-page insert pamphlet contains an essay by Sam Deighan and a number of vintage articles and writings: excerpts of critic Graham Greene’s reviews of Fury, You and Me and Ministry of Fear; a piece on Lang’s reputation as Hollywood’s prime Nazi-hater; Lang interview excerpts from Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg; and critical reactions from The Monthly Film Bulletin, various London papers, Bosley Crowther, Gavin Lambert, Lotte Eisner (with the bullet gag graphic), Andrew Sarris and Patrick McGilligan.
The Killer Ap in the Powerhouse package is The BFI Interview with Fritz Lang, a seventy-minute talk conducted by Stanley Reed at the National Film Theater after a 1962 screening of Lang’s Metropolis. Lang immediately field questions from the audience, discussing his silent work through his final German films. The questions are good and his answers thoughtful, and he even shows a consistent sense of humor. He loves La dolce vita but more than once proclaims that he thought L’avventura to be a worthless bore. Candid opinions abound — he even explains how his professional teaming with Thea von Harbou ended with the coming of sound, and that their marriage ended when she became a Nazi.
Sadly, Lang makes no mention of the editorial mangling of his Metropolis but instead apologizes for it, as he did for our screening at UCLA ten years later. I think he had written it off in his mind, years before — the movie he claims to be most proud of is ‘M’. Host Stanley Reed tells the audience that it is a private interview and not for publication without prior approval of the director! I wonder if that rule was enforceable, or if I should mail in for permission.
I always wondered if George Orwell referenced Graham Greene’s superb title Ministry of Fear when he dreamed up the sinister government bureaus for his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. There is no actual Ministry of Fear in Lang’s movie, but one of the characters is an important advisor to the government’s War Ministry. I’m now informed that Orwell’s inspiration came from an anti-Trotsky writer of the early 1940s, who predicted that the world would eventually be reorganized under giant, unfeeling power blocs, envisioned as bureaucratic monoliths. Perhaps we can call them multinational corporations.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Ministry of Fear
Region B Blu-ray rates:
Supplements (via Powerhouse): The BFI Interview with Fritz Lang (1962, 80 mins): an archival audio recording of the celebrated filmmaker in conversation with Stanley Reed at London’s National Film Theatre; Audio commentary with author and film historian Neil Sinyard; Tony Rayns on Fritz Lang and Ministry of Fear (2018); Graham Greene and Ministry of Fear (2018) featuring Adrian Wootton, OBE, author of The Films of Graham Greene; Limited edition exclusive booklet with a new essay by Sam Deighan, an overview of contemporary critical responses and historic articles on the film; trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 25, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson