Fritz Lang was reportedly dissatisfied with how his final German production, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, slumped into overt supernaturalism in order to “explain” the phenomenon of a seemingly immortal, invincible terrorist; while the scaly-faced, bug-eyed specter of the ur-Mabuse slaps a grotesque enough face on the essential facelessness of anarchy, it also more or less lets the humans inhabited by the grubby ghost-parasite off the hook. To his cynical credit, Lang would never again allow his characters such grace by way of plot twist or double-exposed image, and a wartime Graham Greene adaptation the director made a decade later in the U.S. even provides a cogent, if unintentional, rejoinder to Mabuse’s facile magic.
Indeed, fantastical moments abound in Ministry of Fear, but there’s no superhuman mechanism lurking behind them. (Even a shadowy ringleader turns out to be a decoy figurehead.) Murders are committed for the sake of a cake; a mentalist transforms from a withered hag to a svelte femme fatale; a dusty leather satchel full of books explodes, reducing a hotel room to rubble; and perhaps best of all, Dan Duryea dies twice, with ample time to sneeringly dial a rotary telephone with a pair of gargantuan scissors in between his deathly appointments. Yet all this would-be sorcery—which is furthermore offered the visual texture of black magic through Lang’s gothic photography—turns out to have a logical explanation, albeit a sinisterly logical one. Avoiding The Testament of Dr. Mabuse‘s ultimately apologetic metaphor for mankind’s twisted nature, Ministry of Fear‘s larger-than-life elements instead form a damning playbook of coded perversity, single-served; Lang’s signature mob, here a Nazi spy ring that’s turned London into a minefield of deadly tricks, is gradually atomized into individual agents who are each held responsible for their specific wickedness.
And what is film noir but a sensational trail of events leading from the gothic and ghostly to the cunningly criminal? Moody mysteries such as Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes and Robert Siodmak’s similarly titled Phantom Lady, both of which predate Ministry of Fear (the latter just barely), deftly appropriate Auguste Dupin’s “disappearing body” device and lighthearted investigative theatrics. Lang’s film, the third in his string of gut-torkingly vindictive anti-Nazi tirades, is in comparison a veritable traveler’s dictionary of dark strangeness. In the prologue, a London-bound, just-recovered bedlamite named Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) wins a cake at a rural village fête after a fortune teller furtively tips him off to the confection’s exact weight; as he exits, nearly the entire carnival accosts him with cold, purposeful eyes, insisting that a mistake has been made. (Converting a throng with evidently individual concerns into a mob with a singular, morbid objective was for Lang an activity akin to snapping the fingers.) A suspiciously nosy blind man traveling in Stephen’s train car then wrestles control of the cake, but he’s converted into a sandy crater among the cragged trees in the nearby hills by an air-raid missile, almost as though the dessert were a target for the planes above.
All this seemingly eerie happenstance, of course, has an order and a purpose: Both are simply coded in such a way that neither Stephen nor we can properly decipher. The remainder of the movie consists of the protagonist’s efforts at cracking through this endangering web of espionage riddles, and diabolically intermittent suggestions of the web’s pervasiveness (just how far into England have the Nazis infiltrated?) offer the conflict a nearly percussive tension. Bits of innocuous conversation, such as a phone call received by a crotchety bookseller in whose attic Stephen hides out, prove homicidally conspiratorial; Stephen receives assistance and asylum from a pair of charity-running siblings, Willi (Carl Esmond) and Carla (Marjorie Reynolds), who have conspicuous Austrian accents. The fact that everyone in this dark, foul city is a potential Nazi gets drummed into us without relief. Even Stephen turns out to be marginally culpable by way of a sympathy-curdling, matricidal backstory more typical of Greene than Lang. (Think of how differently both Fury and You Only Live Once depict sweetness turned not just sour but septic by society.)
But the director readily trumps whatever characteristically un-Lang-ish elements remain from the source material with a series of chillingly designed image-clusters, in many of which even the shadows exhibit a hellish rhythm. In one scene, a man rocking in a chair turned away from us emerges from a heavy blur, his movements bending finger-like lines of black across the wall beside him. In another, an escaping Nazi is brought down after three short, sharp shocks that constitute a kind of cinematic magic trick: a light switch clicks downward, a door slams shut, and then a firearm’s blast cuts confidently through the wood and the darkness the spy left behind him.
It's hard to tell whether this high-definition transfer of Ministry of Fear, while spotless, falls short of transformative due to Criterion's efforts or the film itself; despite a shadow-bathed shoot-out at the movie's close, there's nothing here that rivals, say, the cultivated ominousness of Manhunt's pitch-black subway-tube confrontation. Still, what of Fritz Lang's fearful symmetries Ministry of Fear has to offer are especially lucid on this disc. Every pixel seems imbued with paranoia here—even walls appear to have been gouache'd over with ambiguous, rippling grey that intends to hide something. The sound mix is also terrifically clear, even by Criterion's unusually high standards, and in particular the textures of the various Aryan accents in and out of which characters slip adds to the atmosphere of clandestine oppressiveness.
The only supplements to speak of are a brief interview with Lang scholar Joe McElhaney, and a perspicacious booklet essay by critic Glenn Kenny. Both analyses expertly contextualize the film within Lang's oeuvre, and within the traditions of both Hollywood and German cinema; it's helpful that both scholars also approach Ministry of Fear as a minor work in need of some delicate defense. (Lang was allegedly less than thrilled with the final product.) Hopefully this quite fairly priced Blu-ray will, however, improve the movie's reputation.
Criterion's Ministry of Fear Blu-ray takes the cake—then blows it up, then goes hunting for its sweetly iced fragments.