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Ministry of Fear
Savant Blu-ray Review

Ministry of Fear
Criterion 649
1944 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 87 min. / Street Date March 12, 2013 / 29.95
Starring Ray Milland, Marjorie Reynolds, Carl Esmond, Hillary Brooke, Percy Waram, Dan Duryea, Alan Napier, Erskine Sanford, Byron Foulger.
Henry Sharp
Original Music Victor Young
Written by Seton I. Miller from the novel by Graham Greene
Associate Producer Seton I. Miller
Directed by Fritz Lang

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

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 film and pulp fiction thrillers. His first films in Hollywood were fierce examinations of American crime and the nature of justice, as seen in the anti-lynching film 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 turned his skill with high-tension espionage fantasies to the new conflict. 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! invents a story 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 Ministry of Fear. It takes place in a setting similar to Man Hunt, but the mood 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 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 he is shot dead. Suspected as the murderer, 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) is found dead, and suspicion falls on Neale for that killing as well. 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 of Lang tells us that Lang's customary contract demand for revision rights was left out of this deal, so he was forced by writer / associate producer Seton I. Miller not to stray from the script. This explanation still sounds like an excuse, as almost every detail in the film follow's 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. Lang's later, brilliant swan song feature The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse has striking similarities with this show, including a murder at a clairvoyant's séance and more than one character with a double identity. The basic novelty of the story is the now-trite concept of a helpless hero caught in an invisible conspiracy, watching his options close as an unseen group of villains frames him for crimes and kills his friends. In 1944, this was still something of a novel approach. 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 the web of spies may be a paranoid delusion.

But the film of Ministry of Fear is told straight, and its hero is perplexed but 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. Because of the wartime rationing of eggs the cake is considered quite a prize, even without its holding the MacGuffin-like secret the spies wish to ferret to Germany. Lang's most interesting visual effect is an almost-too clever final gag involving a bullet hole in a door. The 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 what he's looking out. The image suggests a psychic detachment from his environment, an anxious, helpless isolation.

The problem is that Ray Milland otherwise plays the character in a fairly relaxed fashion. He functions well socially and has time to 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 was sent to the asylum. The unhappy, sordid reason makes sense, but it seems out of keeping with the polished Paramount world around us. It looks as if Ministry of Fear is meant to be a "theraputic" experience for Stephen Neale, 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 never reach 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 on the tame and uninvolving side.

Ray Milland is his usual utterly charming and likeable self. Marjorie Reynolds is sweet but makes little impression, considering that she eventually takes the Langian "blood revenge" role, as a sort of pantywaist Kriemhild character restricted to a couple of small rooms and a pistol. Carl Esmond is too obviously chosen as a 'nice guy' Austrian, a dodge that surely fooled nobody in 1944. Hillary Brooke's part never lets her get beyond a few sultry Mata Hari gestures. Also underused yet wholly effective is the great Dan Duryea, who puts a heck of a lot of menace into a couple minutes' worth of screen time. He 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 Duryea, for the actor won plum parts in Lang's next two movies, The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street.

The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray of Ministry of Fear is a very good encoding of a Paramount title that migrated to MCA (Universal) long ago, when nobody thought to hold onto a full range of printing elements. Luckily, this title is in good, if not perfect shape, like the perfect nitrate prints we saw back at UCLA in the 1970s. The audio is in good shape as well. The IMDB states that Miklos Rozsa composed additional music to Victor Young's score... an expert would have to point it out to me.

The UCLA audience applauded Lang's final trick shot, the above-mentioned striking visual of the bullet hole in a door. On a reasonably large theater screen, in a dark theater, the shot really works: all is darkness except for this sudden round point of light. At home, even in a home theater situation, the graphic simplicity of the shot may be lost because the "action" is so tiny on the screen. Viewers sometimes don't even see it happen.

The disc extras are limited to a Lang-related interview with Joe McElhaney, and a visual essay with commentary by Glenn Kenny. Some of the visual symmetry pointed out in the film is less than impressive. Yes, there are number of circles in the visual scheme. Yes, the blind man crumbling the cake can be compared to Kneale's sifting of the dirt in the bomb crater. We're more likely to notice the artificiality of the studio set, or think to ourselves, is every blind man in a mystery thriller a scheming faker? This one isn't even selling balloons. Ministry of Fear is good but non-essential Fritz Lang. 1

I love Criterion's cover illustration -- I wish they'd sell posters of some of them. In this case, the artwork doesn't accurately express Lang's movie -- it looks more appropriate for something like Brazil.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Ministry of Fear Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Subtitles: English
Supplements: Interview with scholar Joe McElhaney, visual essay by Glenn Kenny, Original Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 3, 2013


1. I always wondered if George Orwell referenced Graham Greene's superb title "Ministry of Fear" when he dreamed up the sinister government offices in his novel 1984. I just read an article that states 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 organized as bureaucratic monoliths. 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.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2013 Glenn Erickson

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