Note: the images accompanying this review are used for illustrative purposes only and do not reflect the contents of the Ministry of Fear Blu-ray.
Ministry of Fear's sturdily entertaining noir must have been as much of a "sure thing" as possible from the moment it first got the green light. After all, this handsomely mounted Paramount production was directed by Fritz Lang, adapted from a novel by Graham Greene, and starred the suave Ray Milland in a tense yarn suffused with plenty of wartime paranoia. And yet the film as released in 1944 was considered such a disappointment that both Lang and Greene spent years distancing themselves from it. Which begs the question: could it really be that terrible?
Ministry of Fear, actually, is not half bad - an enjoyable, dread-filled wartime drama that bears more than a passing resemblance to contemporary Alfred Hitchcock thrillers like Foreign Correspondent and Saboteur. Being a Fritz Lang film, it's a darker, deeper, more thoughtfully made project than the average studio-grade Hollywood melodrama. Ministry of Fear's arrival in a new restoration issued by the folks at Criterion gives a good opportunity to check out the offbeat delights in this film (which, like a lot of the Universal-owned back catalog, has had a spotty to non-existent home video history).
Like many a classic noir, the shadowy intrigue that surrounds Ministry of Fear centers around a regular-guy protagonist - in this case, shell-shocked former asylum patient Stephen Neale, played by Ray Milland in an edgy manner that prefigures his triumph in the following year's The Lost Weekend. Neale, who served out his sentence for a crime that is gradually revealed as the film unfolds, spends his first hours of freedom attending a local charity fair filled with a variety of vivid British small-town types. What should have been a fun time quickly turns into a night of strangeness, however, when the organizers start treating him in an oddly obsequious way. Urged to consult with a fortune teller, the woman tells Neale to make another guess at the weight of a prize cake on display. Neale wins the cake, although the women running the booth urge him to return it once a mysterious blonde man arrives at the fair. Instead, Neale takes off on a train bound for a Blitz-ravaged London. Before arriving in the city, however, his trip is intercepted by the blind man sharing his train compartment, who turns out to be an operative wanting whatever is inside Neale's prize cake. Chasing the man (who took off with the dessert) to a deserted country house which gets destroyed in an air bombing raid, Neale escapes with his life - now determined to find out about the shady network of spies, and what was hidden inside that damned cake.
The deepening layers of twisty intrigue at the heart of Ministry of Fear is what sets it apart from other WWII spy dramas. When the fugitive Neale arrives in London, hiring a detective to help him identify the group pursuing him, the film takes on an ever-deepening surreal, nightmarish quality. After locating the main office of the phony womens' charity, Neale meets a pair of Austrian ex-pat volunteers who appear to not know of their organization's shady dealings. Sister and brother Carla (Marjorie Reynolds) and Willi Hilfe (Carl Esmond) happily volunteer to help Neale track down the fortune teller who sent a doppelganger to the charity fair, one Mrs. Bellane (Hillary Brooke). When Neale and Willi arrive at Mrs. Bellane's mansion, they find that she's preparing for a seance full of weird characters (calling to mind the devil worshippers in Val Lewton's The Seventh Victim). Among the participants is the mysterious blonde man (played by Dan Duryea) whom Neale saw at the fair. The seance is interrupted with a shocking death, however, which leaves Neale a fugitive once again.
Ministry of Fear may lack the subtlety and intelligence of something like The Third Man; its thrills are strictly popcorn fare for escapist times. Still, it counts as solidly done drama with several notable performances (especially Hillary Brooke and the never-disappointing Dan Duryea), and Lang's direction is excellent. The film has the overwhelming feel of vintage '40s Hitchcock, and yet Lang brings his own brooding aesthetic to the proceedings. This is reflected not only in some of the striking, Germanic photography set-ups, but also the atmosphere of gloom and uncertainty that hangs over every frame. Neale is no clean-cut hero, he's a haunted man with demons following him everywhere. The phrase "Trust No One" may have been used on a certain popular paranormal TV series, but it applies to the satisfying noir explored here as well.
Criterion's Blu-ray edition of Ministry of Fear comes in a clear plastic keep case. The contemporary-yet-retro packaging design includes a chapter listing printed on the inner sleeve and a fold-out booklet with film notes and production credits.
The Paramount films from the mid-'40s are a nicely preserved lot, for some reason - Ministry of Fear is no exception. The 2K digital restoration on the Blu-ray showcases the warm, grainy texture in film's 1.37:1 image. Artifacts are kept to a minimum, and there are no apparent instances of shakiness or distortion. One of the pleasures of Ministry of Fear is its super-clean photography (by Henry Sharp); the sterling Blu-ray presentation here gives it a good setting.
Ministry of Fear's original mono soundtrack is the only listening option on the disc, restored at 24-bit with minor instances of pops and crackles manually removed or smoothed over. It's a pleasantly mixed track with clear dialogue and an atmospheric orchestral score.
A 17-minute interview with Fritz Lang scholar Joe McElhaney serves as the main bonus here, with McElhaney discussing the changes made between the source novel and the final screenplay, Lang's use of recurring themes and visual motifs, and the differences between Lang and the more populist Hitchcock. The package booklet includes an essay on the film by critic Glenn Kenny; not quite as in-depth as other Criterion releases, but insightful all the same. The film's trailer rounds out the bonus content.
1944's war-steeped noir thriller Ministry of Fear was originally regarded as a disappointment to director Fritz Lang. Watching the Blu-ray edition, however, calls to mind the observation - contained in this disc's bonus content - that mid-level Lang is appreciatively better than what most other directors of the time were capable of. The film deftly explores wartime paranoia with a good turn by Ray Milland as an everyman who gets involved with a sinister underground ring of Nazi sympathizers. While it lacks the whiz-bang completeness of some of their other reissues, Criterion's Blu-ray edition of the film breathes new life into this under-appreciated drama. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist and sometime writer who lives in sunny (and usually too hot) Phoenix, Arizona. Among his loves are oranges, going barefoot and blonde 1930s movie comedienne Joyce Compton. Since 2000, he has been scribbling away at Pop Culture weblog Scrubbles.net. One can also follow him on Twitter @4colorcowboy.