ON DVD & BLU-RAY
Ministry of Fear (1944) dir: Fritz Lang Blu Ray (Indicator)
A WWII spy mystery
This noir thriller is set in Britain during WWII. It starts out with Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) leaving behind the asylum in which he has been incarcerated, with the intention of starting a new life in London. While waiting for his train, he decides to check out a nearby fête which is being run as a fundraiser for a charity known as Women of Free Nations.
While exploring the various stalls, he decides to get his fortune told by a soothsayer named Mrs. Bellane (Aminta Dyne). Somewhat surprisingly, she tells him to go to the adjacent cake raffle stall and guess its weight as being 4 lb and 15 and a half ounces. When he does this, the raffle lady tells him that he is correct and hands him his prize (which she claims is made from real eggs - a scarcity in Britain during WWII). As he is walking out with it, however, another man (played by Dan Duryea) walks past him in the opposite direction and heads into the soothsayer’s tent. A few seconds later, Mrs. Bellane and the man emerge from the tent and are seen glancing towards him. Suddenly, the raffle lady claims that she has made a mistake and that the other man is the true winner. Nonetheless, Neale manages to talk his way into keeping the cake.
Later on, when he boards the train, a seemingly blind man (played by Eustace Wyatt) asks to join him in his carriage. Neale accepts his request and, when they begin their journey, he decides to share his cake with the man. When the train is halted by a nearby explosion from a German Luftwaffe bombing, the “blind” man hits him over the head with his walking stick and proves to have eyesight strong enough to be able to seize the cake and run away with it into the misty night. Neale pursues him to a ruined farmhouse which is then suddenly bombed, killing the man and, most probably, destroying this suspiciously sought-after cake. He briefly looks through the remains but only finds the man’s gun, which he opts to take with him in case it proves useful later.
Neale decides to investigate by heading to the Women of Free Nations office in London. Once there, he meets two Austrians - a brother and sister named Willi and Carla Hilfe (played by Carl Esmond and Marjorie Reynolds) - as well as another woman who claims to be the true Mrs. Bellane (played by Hillary Brooke). The latter invites them to a seance which is also - surprise, surprise - being attended by none other than the man who was supposed to win the cake at the fête, whom he finds out is named Cost. When the lights go down and the session commences, a gunshot pierces the darkness. Cost has been shot in the head - and since Neale is the only person in the room who is known to be in possession of a gun, he becomes the number one suspect.
He subsequently sets out to both prove his innocence and uncover what appears to be an enemy spy ring amid the Women of Free Nations organisation.
Watch a trailer:
Ministry of Fear isn’t one of Fritz Lang’s most widely acclaimed films. Indeed, both the director himself and Graham Greene, the author of the original novel, were quite dissatisfied with screenwriter and producer Seton I. Miller’s adaptation of the story. Lang didn’t want to work with Miller’s script but had already signed on the dotted line before he had read it and was unable to either back out of his contract or have it rewritten. While learning all of this stuff doesn’t exactly fill one with high expectations, the end result still turns out to be a very solid Hitckcockian thriller with the added dimension of its dark WWII setting.
Indeed, Lang is really in his element here with the latter aspect as he makes some atmospheric and tension-laced use of deliberate compositions, chiaroscuro lighting, art deco set design, rain, smoke and sound effects. There are several particularly notable and inventive setpieces: a foot chase through the nighttime fog of war, the almost horror movie-style seance and a number of scenes involving that classic Lang device: the muzzle flash of gunfire piercing the darkness. The best moment, however, is a brief pursuit which ends up with one of the co-conspirators dying via a sudden, shocking scissor impalement (not graphic but still quite strong for the era).
Ray Milland gives an engaging and charming James Stewart-style everyman performance as the central protagonist. Marjorie Reynolds, who is saddled with a not entirely convincing Germanic accent, is adequate but not especially memorable as the love interest. Hillary Brooke is better in the sultry femme fatale role.
As a thriller, Ministry of Fear slows down a bit during its midsection but uses the opportunity to add a modicum of depth to the characters. There’s a particularly emotive moment where Neale reveals the reasons why he got committed to a mental asylum. While this revelation (which I won’t spoil for those who don’t know the story) has been softened a little in comparison to the book, it is still handled with enough sympathy to be fairly progressive for a film of its time.
The abrupt and jarringly jolly ending is arguably the main minus point here. It’s entirely plausible that it was forced by the studio since it feels like Lang’s heart really wasn’t in it. That misstep aside, Ministry of Fear is an atmospheric, underrated entry in the director’s lengthy filmography.
Runtime: 86 mins
Dir: Fritz Lang
Script: Seton I. Miller, from a novel by Graham Greene
Starring: Ray Milland, Marjorie Reynolds, Carl Esmond, Hillary Brooke, Percy Waram, Dan Duryea, Aminta Dyne
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
The chiaroscuro imagery looks wonderful here - very clean and sharp with almost flawless contrast. Lang’s use of sound plays an important part in this film (as it does in many of his other non-silent works) so the clarity of even the more subtle effects here is a huge boon here.
The BFI Interview with Fritz Lang
This is an audio recording of Stanley Reed interviewing Lang in the National Film Theatre, London in 1962. Unfortunately, the poor sound quality (which Indicator admits to in the opening card) coupled with Lang’s German accent means that it is extremely difficult to make out what he is saying.
Selected Scenes Commentary with Neil Sinyard
Sinyard lends us his usual warm and authoritative commentary to 35 minutes’ worth of the best scenes from the film. He takes a look at the recurring themes both in this film and in Lang’s wider body of work. He also takes a look at the reasons why Graham Greene disliked it, the comparisons made to the works of Alfred Hitchcock and some contemporary critical opinions. While the reviews were mixed, even the more favourable ones were wholly negative towards the casting of actress Marjorie Reynolds.
Between Two Worlds
Tony Rayns takes a look at Fritz Lang’s geographical and stylistic transition to Hollywood cinema. The director liked the anti-Nazi theme of Greene’s novel (indeed, this was his third film to cover similar ground, after Man Hunt in 1941 and Hangmen Also Die! in 1942) and tried to purchase the rights - but was outbid by Paramount. In a twist of fate, however, the studio offered Lang the opportunity to direct the film. As I have mentioned above, he disliked Seton I. Miller’s adaptation but his agent was unable to extricate him from the project. Rayns also points out that it differs from the more realistic feel of his first two Nazi-bashing films and returns to the Expressionist/psychodrama style of his German productions.
Adrian Wootton takes an interesting look at the three disparate and clashing talents who were involved in this film: Graham Greene, Fritz Lang and the rather overlooked Seton I. Miller - a man who had unusual power for a Hollywood screenwriter in that his deal with Paramount meant that he was allowed to produce his own films. Greene wrote the original novel while he was running his own real-life spy ring in Sierra Leone. In turn, his experiences from working in the country would inspire him to write his later novel Our Man in Havana which was adapted to film by Carol Reed.
Wootton also takes a look at the eternal book vs. film adaptation quandary in terms of Graham Greene adaptations. Greene didn’t like a lot of the film versions of his work, with the notable exception of those made by Reed, who tended to work more closely with him than other directors did. However, Wootton offers the case that Lang (and/or Miller) probably dropped and changed some parts of the original Ministry of Fear novel in order to get on with the action - one example being the book’s early mental asylum section, which was reduced to nothing more than a brief opening scene. As a final note, Lang apparently apologised to Greene about for his involvement in the film when he introduced himself to the latter in a restaurant.
A trailer, image gallery and enclosed booklet round out the extras.
Ministry of Fear is solidly recommended to both Fritz Lang and film noir fans. The extras here are decent but unexceptional.