From the mid-1930s through the mid-1950s, Fritz Lang directed some of Hollywood's darkest and grittiest motion pictures. With roots in German Expressionism, the Austrian immigrant embraced the film noir style, helming such classics as 'The Woman in the Window' and 'Scarlet Street,' but his passionate opposition to Hitler's regime during World War II also spawned a string of anti-Nazi propoganda films in the 1940s. 'Ministry of Fear,' an adaptation of the Graham Greene espionage yarn, fits snugly into both niches, as it chronicles the efforts of an innocent man to evade pursuers, clear his name, and expose a Nazi spy ring in Blitz-battered London.
Greene reportedly hated 'Ministry of Fear,' citing it as one of the worst film versions of one of his novels. True, the movie omits or alters several sections of the book, but as an exercise in suspense and example of noir filmmaking, it largely succeeds, thanks to Lang's sure-handed style, nuanced artistry, and a lean, tightly constructed screenplay. While it doesn't possess the cachet of better known noirs, such as 'Double Indemnity' and 'Out of the Past,' 'Ministry of Fear' nevertheless remains a solid genre entry that quickly grabs our attention and holds it throughout its taut 87-minute running time.
When we first lay eyes on Stephen Neale (Ray Milland), he's biding his time, awaiting his release from a mental asylum. Why he's there, we don't know, but a bit of imbalance lends his character an intriguing fragility and unpredictability that make him at once a sympathetic figure. Upon gaining his freedom, he buys a railway ticket to London, but while waiting for the train, he wanders into a charity fair and by coincidence wins a coveted cake from a vendor. That cake sets in motion an intricately plotted odyssey, as Stephen becomes the target of unknown assailants who discover a dark secret from his past and frame him for a murder he did not commit. With little to go on, Stephen races to expose the organization pursuing him, and with the help of an Austrian émigré (Marjorie Reynolds) and her brother (Carl Esmond), begins to believe his foes are Nazi sympathizers. Paranoia ensues, and without any evidence to back up his claims, the authorities suspect Stephen might not be as sane as he professes to be.
'Ministry of Fear' possesses many elements indigenous to Hitchcock films - an innocent man wrongly accused who's forced to go on the run; the cool blonde who comes to his aid, but may not be all that she seems; a tense train sequence; and a dash of dark humor at the end. Produced on the heels of such classic Hitchcock chase pictures as 'Foreign Correspondent' and 'Saboteur,' Lang's film could be forgiven for emulating a proven formula, but 'Ministry of Fear' is very much its own animal. Lang employs both high and low angles for emphasis, sneaks in a couple of off-kilter shots, and uses shadows and dingy settings to perfection, heightening our sense of unease and perpetuating a sinister mood. Like Hitchcock, but to a greater extent, Lang juxtaposes elegance with grit to create a seductive atmosphere that compensates for any narrative lulls.
Twists and turns abound in Seton I. Miller's script, which requires a good bit of attention to follow all the plot trajectories, but by the end, all the dangling threads tie up neatly. Some choppy editing makes for a few jarring transitions, the climactic rooftop shootout in the rain, though stylishly shot, lacks appropriate impact, and the Austrian accent of Marjorie Reynolds (best known as Bing Crosby's love interest in 'Holiday Inn') is downright horrible, but none of these deficiencies drag down the film's level of enjoyment. A strong performance by Milland, who would win the Best Actor Academy Award for his searing portrait of a hopeless alcoholic in his very next film, 'The Lost Weekend,' anchors the picture, as he subtly transmits Stephen's apprehension, confusion, guilt, and steadfast resolve. It's the kind of role Cary Grant or James Stewart would play for Hitchcock - the ordinary man caught up in extraordinary circumstances - but it's hard to imagine either of those actors eclipsing Milland here.
Though 'Ministry of Fear' will never outshine other, better known films in its class (or even other, better known films by its own director), it remains an engaging, often exciting, and thoroughly entertaining thriller that deserves to be re-evaluated. As a study in intrigue and propoganda, as well as just a good, solid, gripping film noir, Lang's movie succeeds, and makes us anxious to explore the rest of the director's canon.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Ministry of Fear' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard Criterion case. Inside, an eight-page, fold-out booklet contains an essay on the movie by film critic Glenn Kenny, along with a cast and crew listing, and notes about the transfers. (Alas, there are no photographs or illustrations.) Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is LPCM mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Though not perfect, the 'Ministry of Fear' transfer often looks superb, sporting marvelous gray scale variance, solid contrast and clarity, and lusciously rich black levels. Newly restored in 2k resolution from a 35mm safety fine-grain master, the image maintains its pleasing grain structure, which adds vital texture and grit to this espionage drama. The source material is remarkably clean, and though a few errant specks still dot the picture, only eagle eyes will spot them. Murky scenes abound, but shadow delineation is always excellent, noise is completely absent, and background details are surprisingly distinct. Close-ups impress, too, especially one of a pensive Milland late in the film, and the rain-drenched climax is so clear we almost feel the dampness.
A hint of jitter afflicts the image from time to time, and from the 1:12:30 mark to about 1:14:05 there's a nagging bit of debris hanging from the top of the frame, but these are minor annoyances that in no way inhibit our enjoyment of the movie. Once again, Criterion does a classic title proud, enhancing the viewing experience with a silky yet natural image that brings out the beauty of Henry Sharp's black-and-white photography while keeping us completely engrossed in the on-screen action.
The uncompressed mono track was remastered at 24-bit from an optical track print, and the results are quite good. Plenty of quiet moments permeate the film, yet there's only the slightest hint of hiss, and no pops, crackles, or other age-related imperfections rear their ugly heads. Subtle accents are exceptionally well rendered, from a ticking clock and creaky gate to distinct footsteps and the tapping of typewriter keys. Bass frequencies also get a chance to shine during the Blitz sequence, with rumbling plane engines and dropping bombs supplying the soundscape with some much-needed weight.
Dialogue can be a little sharp-sounding at times, though most conversations are clear and easy to understand. Distortion is never an issue, thanks to a dynamic scale that's wide enough to handle anything the movie throws at it, and Victor Young's music score fills the room nicely, even if it lacks the warmth and depth of tone that distinguish the best score reproductions. For a 70-year-old track, the audio here is top-notch, and it helps create a mood of tension and foreboding that's essential to the film's success.
Criterion uncharacteristically skimps on the extras for 'Ministry of Fear' (or maybe I'm still spoiled by the embarrassment of riches that grace the 'On the Waterfront' release), but that may be due to the title's relative obscurity. Nevertheless, the lack of an audio commentary is surprising.
'Ministry of Fear' may not rank up there with Fritz Lang's greatest works, but this bit of World War II anti-Nazi propoganda wrapped up in a tale of mystery and intrigue stands on its own as a taut, engrossing, and subtly stylish thriller. Ray Milland gives a winning performance as the confused man on the run, and Lang's fluid, artistic direction keeps us engaged, even during the film's rare lulls. Though Criterion's liner notes and supplements aren't as hefty as usual, the stellar video and audio transfers live up to the studio's high standards, and help this entertaining vintage thriller earn a solid recommendation.