Ministry of Fear
Directed by: Fritz Lang
Written by: Seton I. Miller
Starring: Ray Milland, Marjorie Reynolds, Carl Esmond
Fritz Lang fans have yet another reason to be happy thanks to Criterion’s release of his 1944 film noir thriller ‘Ministry of Fear’. Lang’s films have been slowly and consistently making their way to blu ray thanks to various boutique distributors (Criterion, Kino, Masters of Cinema, Twilight Time) and this one doesn’t disappoint. Lang’s filmography is vast and diverse and ‘Ministry of Fear’ is yet another great example of his grasp on genre and his ability to navigate a great mystery with style.
Based on Graham Greene’s novel of the same title, ‘Ministry of Fear’ follows Stephen Neale (Ray Milland), a man newly released from an insane asylum. On his way to London, Stephen stops over at a fêtes held by a charity called The Mothers of Free Nations. He pays a shilling to take part in a cake weighing contest and is eventually persuaded to have his fortune told by a psychic, Mrs. Bellane. She suggests he take another guess at the weight of the cake, informing him that the answer is 4 pounds and 15 and a half ounces. Neal follows her advice and ultimately wins the cake, even though a stranger attempts to contest the results. Stephen gets back on the train with his cake and heads for London.
It’s this delicious MacGuffin that plunges Stephen into a deadly mystery. His train ride takes a deadly turn as an old blind man assaults him and steals the cake. After the man, and the evidence, is blown up during a Nazi air raid, Stephen is left puzzled and seeks the help of a private investigator. They seek out the Mothers of Free Nations head office, looking for some answers. From there, they’re taken to Mrs. Bellane’s mansion where they take part in a group seance that ends in murder. Stephen is framed for the killing and escapes in an attempt to discover the truth behind the murder and the answer to this series of strange events.
Fritz Lang’s career is a fascinating one due to an impressively diverse filmography. Ministry of Fear falls into that period in which he fled Nazi Germany for Hollywood, refusing the position as head of a major German film studio, offered to him by Joseph Goebbels. Instead, he moved to Paris and then eventually America, where he went on to shoot a series of anti-Nazi thrillers including ‘Man Hunt’, ‘Hangmen Also Die!’ and ‘Ministry of Fear’. I wouldn’t call ‘Ministry of Fear’ a masterpiece, but it’s certainly a well-crafted, taught thriller that falls in line with the expectations of the genre and adds just enough intrigue to remain continually interesting, and thrilling. Ray Milland is great as Stephen Neale and it was particularly nice to see him pop up in this after having recently watched him in Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend. Outside of the typically twisty and overly-detailed plot, the film contains a few great action set pieces. Mainly, the Nazi air raid in which the old blind man runs through a field as a munitions plant is battered by bombs in the distance. It’s an instant reminder of Lang’s masterful grasp on matte paintings and miniature effects after having cut his teeth on genre classics like Metropolis and Die Nibelungen.
The film is fairly plot driven outside of a few interesting details surrounding Stephen’s past. His time spent in an insane asylum is revealed to have been the result of an alleged murder, which adds an interest twist to what would otherwise be a fairly standard protagonist. Unfortunately, I don’t think his emotional issues surrounding those events are really resolved in any interesting way. In fact, I would say the ending of Ministry of Fear is pretty weak as it feels unusually upbeat and totally rushed, like many films of the time. There’s also a pretty lame joke that didn’t quite work for me and felt out of line with the tone of the rest of the film. Still, it was an enjoyable ride and the mystery was satisfying enough to make for an entertaining, tight little thriller. It might not be a classic, but it’s definitely a lot of fun.
‘Ministry of Fear’ comes to Criterion blu ray with a brand new 2K digital restoration that looks absolutely fantastic. The transfer is naturally filmic with no sign of digital manipulation and the black and white photography is stunning. Fans of Lang should be pleased with the work put into this release. However, anybody looking for supplemental materials will be slightly disappointed as the release contains only two features; a newly filmed interview with Fritz Lang scholar Joe McElhaney and a theatrical trailer. It seems like Ministry of Fear is one of Criterions few “budget” releases, much like Mikhail Kalatozov’s ‘Letter Never Sent’, that favours a lower price point in favour of special features. I’m actually fine with this but those who count on a vast list of interviews, featurettes, slideshows, and audio interviews are out of luck. Still, I highly recommend this release. — Jay C.
Recommended If You Like: The Wrong Man, The Third Man, Man-Hunt