When the decade most cultures refer to as the 1940s came around on good ol’ Planet Earth, the entire world had been affected by World War II. Trust wasn’t as easily granted unto others as it might have been only a few years before — especially to those with peculiar accents or whose methods seemed somewhat shifty in nature. It was during this dark period in history that filmmakers in Hollywood began to experiment with what would become a classic, much-revered genre in cinema: the film noir. Interestingly enough, most of the elements instilled into these shadowy thrillers were borrowed from the German Expressionist Cinema movement from several decades prior; specifically, the work of Austrian-born German filmmaker, Fritz Lang.
In the early ’30s, Lang — the man responsible for masterpieces like Metropolis, M, and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse — was approached by the propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels to become the head of Nazi filmmaking in Germany. Shortly afterwards (the reports vary as to when), Lang removed himself from the danger he would have surely been immersed in had he accepted the offer — eventually emigrating to America, where he would go on to all but create the film noir genre personally. Among the many films he would mold the thriller subgenre with in the years to follow were The Big Heat, While the City Sleeps, and — earlier in his American career — the WWII film noir, Ministry of Fear.
Though it is basically an eviscerated adaptation of The Ministry of Fear — originally penned by Graham Greene, who’s other works, such as The Third Man would wind up becoming far better moving picture fare — Lang’s atmospheric touch here is unmistakable. It is also unmatchable.
Here, a young Ray Milland plays Stephen Neale: our protagonist, who is released from an asylum at the beginning of the movie after having been found guilty of mercifully murdering his wife several years before. Seizing the opportunity to interact with members of the human race other than doctors or nurses for the first time in a long time, Neale makes a detour from his journey to London by visiting a small town fête — a word that’s heterograph just happens to be “fate.” After entering the bazaar’s cake raffle, Neale visits an on-site fortune teller — where he is told the exact weight of the baked dessert in question, a strange revelation by a total stranger that does indeed land him with the winning item. Shortly afterward, another man appears to guess the weight of the cake — and that’s when Neale’s real journey begins.
From thereon in, Neale gets assaulted (and subsequently shot at) by a phony blind man on the train, trailed by shady characters both near and far, gets accused of murdering a man at a séance, and just fills that quintessential film noir protagonist persona in-general: the guy who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In the case of Milland’s Neale, however, our hero is not entirely oblivious or “unwilling” (if you will) to play the game he has unwittingly found himself in. He knows something is afoot, and is determined to solve the mystery while trying to elude the authorities — who would surely not believe his plight based on his prior history.
Though Lang reportedly hated the script for Ministry of Fear, as written by Seton I. Miller (The Sea Hawk, The Adventures of Robin Hood), he nevertheless still managed to give the movie his own personal touch — something he did with all of his projects. And that is perhaps what saves Ministry of Fear from being just another WWII-era espionage thriller. The darkness is Lang’s ally in many a scene, from the opening shot that establishes Milland’s character, to a dynamic rooftop shootout in the rain towards the movie’s finale — a conclusion that, though satisfying, is all-too-brief; cutting to a cutesy cutaway wrap-up shortly thereafter. Nevertheless, Lang still manages to bear his filmmaking fangs to the audience — no matter which decade they are living in.
Co-starring in Ministry of Fear are Marjorie Reynolds (who would later have the distinction of playing alongside Abbott & Costello in the great comedy duo’s most un-Abbott-and-Costello-like film, The Time of Their Lives), Austrian actor Carl Esmond (who is simply marvelous here), Hillary Brooke (who would also go on to perform with Bud and Lou on The Abbott and Costello Show), Dan Duryea (in one of his rare non-cowboy picture roles — and as a Nazi to boot), and Alan Napier (Alfred from the cult classic television incarnation of Batman).
The Criterion Collection brings us Ministry of Fear to DVD (as well as Blu-ray) in a pleasing video transfer that presents the movie in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The picture is a pretty solid and clean affair for the most part, with the occasional negative trinket of time popping up for a split second onscreen, but it’s about as close to perfect as it’s likely to get other than that. The monaural English soundtrack comes through quite nicely as well, with most of the pops and hissing removed (or at least repaired) in an efficient manner by Criterion’s crackshot crew. Accompanying the movie is the original theatrical trailer, and a 17-minute discussion about the film by Lang scholar Joe McElhaney, which could have used a little more smoothing over in the audio department, but which is a good view just the same. Lastly, there’s an booklet included with an essay on the mini-masterpiece by critic Glenn Kenny.
Surprisingly, that’s all Ministry of Fear gets in terms of special features. While it isn’t highly regarded as a true classic of the time, it has managed to hold its own after all this time just the same. And, of course, I think most of that is due to director Fritz Lang and an earnest performance by his lead actor, Ray Milland. Together, they quite literally take the cake on this one.