“Ministry of Fear” (1944) had its share of detractors, among them Graham Greene who despised this adaptation of his wartime novel. Fritz Lang, who directed the adaptation, had considerable misgivings as well; he was not pleased with the script by producer/writer Seton I. Miller, but hadlittle direct leverage to change the screenplay due to his contract. And according to Greene, Lang later apologized to him for the movie. Commentators often note the principals’ objections as amusing anecdotes before launching a vigorous defense of the film, but I’m not sure the opinions of these two titans should be dismissed.
The opening scenes certainly evoke the title. The spiked pendulum of a clock carves a tight, nervous arc against a white wall, its thick semi-circular shadow in twin orbit. The camera slowly pulls back to reveal Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) sitting stiffly in a chair, watching the pendulum dart back and forth with his own twin shadow splayed like a crime-scene outline on the wall behind him. A second man enters the room with the ominous line, “It’s interesting to watch the last minute crawl by, after so many of them.”
Now that’s a lulu of a setup that could take us anywhere. Neale’s last minute turns out to be his last minute until he is set free from the Lembridge Asylum… and cast right into the bedlam of wartime London. In classic “wrong man” fashion, Neale wanders immediately to the worst possible place at the worst possible time, a local fair staged by a group with the chipper title The Mothers of Free Nations. There he encounters a psychic who tells him precisely the correct weight to guess so that he can win a cake that leads to him being attacked by a blind man who really wants that darn cake! Nobody gets the cake, but as he follows the trail of crumbs Neale winds up being roped first into a distinctly perverse group séance and then eventually into the midst of a struggle with Nazi spies right in the heart of London.
From the asylum to the fairground where all of The Mothers radiate sinister ulterior motives, the first act establishes the uncanny mood that gives so much of Lang’s finest work its enduring power. A pulsing, stalking paranoia permeates the very film grain and renders any distinction between nightmare and reality irrelevant. But once the rusty machinations of the plot kick in, the profoundly eerie audiovisual spell is undermined if not broken at times by the plodding twistiness that draws more attention to the puzzle piece narrative rather than the semi-expressionist ambiance. Goosepimply frissons give way to depressingly mundane and elaborate explanations though fortunately the jagged pieces never quite snap together with the ease of more generic fare.
Regarding the twistiness, I will not give away anything more about the plot except to say that I hated the ending so much that I actually booed my television at three in the morning which, I will admit, is not the healthiest of indicators. It’s unfair to criticize a film for not developing the way we want it to. However, I’m reminded of the time I saw “The Departed” in the theater (SEMI-SPOILER ALERT FOR “THE DEPARTED”) and upon the abrupt death of a major character, a woman in the audience said quite loudly, “Oh no, no no, I do not like that!” Perhaps many audience members wouldn’t even consider the ending here a twist at all and I am simply resentful at having guessed wrong the whole time, but now I know what she felt like. I do not like this ending, oh no, and as much as I would like to be more analytical about a film by a director I love so much, I cannot really get past that. At least I can pretend that Lang would have changed it if he had his way even with no evidence to back up that belief.
The cast is populated by a series of ominous cyphers including Hillary Brooke, Dan Duryea, and Alan Napier, all mysterious parts of the grand conspiracy. Marjorie Reynolds and Carl Esmond gets somewhat more substantial roles as sibling German immigrants trying to prove their loyalty to England, but the film belongs mostly to a suitably haunted Milland. Lang doesn’t delve into Neale’s psyche and only gradually doles out background information (What was that business about being in an asylum…); one of the film’s strongest suits is that the audience has to suspend judgment and even sympathy as it takes a while to identify where exactly Stephen Neale falls on the old-fashioned good-guy/bad-guy spectrum. He seems a bit nervous in the light, and rather at home in the creeping shadows as he tries to figure just what kind of nuthouse he’s been released into. A world at war; it doesn’t get much crazier than that.
The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. From Criterion: “This new digital transfer was created in 2K resolution on a Lasergraphics scanner from a 35 mm safety fine-grain master.”
The 1080p transfer has a fine grainy look and renders the voluminous shadows in this black-and-white film with rich, inky detail. Some of the whiter spaces feel a bit “scrubbed” and I don’t necessarily mean there was any excessive digital manipulation; just that some white walls, white pools of light, etc. look a bit indistinct which may well be part of the design/source print. Occasional instances of minor damage are visible, but nothing significant. Overall, a strong transfer but not at the very top-of-the-line..
The linear PCM Mono track is appropriately hollow at times, isolating specific sound effects (footsteps, off-screen clamor, etc.) for the right mood. However, it is more efficient and clean than dynamic, but that’s good enough. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.
Unfortunately, this Criterion release is short on extras. All we get is a Trailer (2 min.) and an interview with Fritz Lang scholar Joe McElhaney (17 min.) McElhaney talks about both Greene’s unhappiness with the adaptation and Lang’s perceived need to make another anti-Nazi film to solidify his “American-ness” in the eyes of Hollywood.
The slim fold-out insert booklet includes a perceptive and appreciative essay by critic Glenn Kenny.
I can’t remember any other time when I was disappointed by a Fritz Lang film. I’m a much bigger fan of two of the Lang films this is sandwiched between, “Hangmen Also Die!” (1943) and the great “Scarlet Street” (1945). But “Ministry” has its share of enthusiastic boosters, and there’s no such thing as a Fritz Lang film that isn’t worth seeing. Criterion hasn’t included many extras, but the high-def transfer is, of course, a strong one.