Criterion // 1944 // 87 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // March 12th, 2013
"An unpredictable thriller with style to spare!"
Fritz Lang is a difficult figure to fit into film history sometimes. He was one of the greatest directors working during the fertile Weimar period in Germany, but bloated budgets and lack of cooperation hampered even his greatest efforts (like Metropolis). Once he came to America (to avoid the Nazis), he was often given generic material by the studios. Though he often rose to the occasion -- Scarlet Street and The Big Heat come to mind -- he made fewer great films than his greatest films, like M, would suggest he was capable of. Since those French critics in the '60s gave us the auteur theory, it's popular to look back over the careers of directors like Lang, those who couldn't always generate their own material, to find evidence of their genius in lesser works. With Ministry of Fear (Blu-ray), Criterion has provided fans with the perfect opportunity to find traces of Lang's immense talent in a film too small to contain his genius.
Stephen Neale (Ray Milland, The Lost Weekend) has just been released from a mental institution in the middle of World War II. On the way to his train to London he stops at the local fair, and bizarre things start to happen. As he makes his way to London, he becomes convinced he's at the center of a Nazi spy ring -- but could he just be paranoid?
Whatever issues Lang might have had with material and budget, his strong visual sense never failed him. Few directors have mastered the use of black-and-white compositions like Lang. Ministry of Fear is filled with foreboding shadows, stark compositions, and even a few gothic touches in some scenes.
Ministry of Fear is also fun to watch because it doesn't take itself too seriously, and therefore is a bit on the crazy side. We have a guy who starts out in a mental institution. He meets a psychic at a small-town fair. He gets involved in a Nazi spy ring. There's a séance and scenes drenched in fog. On one hand it sounds like a list of cheesy generic elements (which, of course, it is). On the other hand, though, it's too many things for one movie. Just the spy ring combined with the former mental patient would have been enough, but Ministry of Fear throws in the other things, the séance and the psychic (which would have been enough on their own without the mental patient angle).
The film is pretty well accomplished in front of the camera as well. Ray Milland plays Stephen as a likeable everyman, someone caught up in a crazy scheme who may himself be crazy. The two women in Stephen's life are played with quiet competence by Marjorie Reynolds and Hillary Brooke. Even Dan Duryea (who would go on to star in two other Lang films) gets a few moments of quiet menace in there.
Ministry of Fear is made even more compelling by this Criterion release. The 1.37:1 transfer was sourced from a safety print that's in amazingly good shape for a film of this vintage. Contrast is good, and black levels are consistent and deep. Detail is strong throughout, especially in closeups. Grain is handled near-perfectly; there's a slight sheen of it in some scenes but it looks like grain instead of noise. There's the tiniest bit of print damage, but nothing at all distracting, and the use of digital trickery to manipulate the image is kept to a minimum. For the audio, we get an uncompressed 1.0 mono track that does the original elements justice. Given the film's age, this track was never going to blow anyone's hair back. However, dialogue is clear and well-balanced. Distortion isn't a problem, and just a bit of hiss is present in a few scenes. Overall, it's a wonderful presentation of the film.
Extras start with an 18-minute interview with Lang scholar Joe McElhaney. He discusses the making of the film, its reception, and the comparisons that Lang's films have garnered with other directors. It's a decent interview, but it feels short. The film's original trailer is also included, and it's an interesting addition, as I'm sure this film couldn't have been easy to market. The usual Criterion booklet is a foldout affair that includes information about the transfer and an essay from critic Glenn Kenny that provides a nice overview of the film.
As the relative lack of extras should make clear, Ministry of Fear is not top-shelf Fritz Lang. It doesn't have the clockwork tightness that he'd bring to his later American efforts (like The Big Heat). It also lacks the conceptual ambition of his earlier German films. There's no comparison to M or The Testament of Dr. Mabuse in terms of trying to say something about social class or crime in general. I could also see many viewers complaining that while individual scenes work really well, the process of getting from one to the next isn't as smooth as it could be. Neale is an almost totally unknown quantity, and Lang only spoons out his background slowly, perhaps too slowly for some viewers. Finally, there's a tendency towards the generic in the film that might turn some people off. The tropes that Lang largely pioneered in his American films have been so thoroughly mined that returning to the source can feel like a wasted exercise.
Even B-level Fritz Lang is still Lang, and Ministry of Fear is worth watching for admirers of his work. It's got a gonzo plot, exciting visuals, and a sold set of performers wrapped around a strange story of a Nazi spy ring. Despite the fact that it's not top-shelf Lang, Criterion have given it the time and attention they give his other films. That means we get a great audiovisual presentation, even if the extras are lighter than Lang fans are used to from the company. The disc is worth picking up for fans of the film, and given the attention to this transfer, it's almost certainly worth an upgrade for those who owned previous home video versions.
Sometimes goofy, but never guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 87 Minutes
Release Year: 1944
MPAA Rating: Not Rated