BluRay/DVD Reviews

MINISTRY OF FEAR

By • May 1st, 2013 •

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Fritz Lang detested Alfred Hitchcock. Even though Lang felt Hitchcock stole his title of “master of suspense”, Lang greatly admired Hitchcock’s REBECCA. Fritz Lang’s own film, MINISTRY OF FEAR, with its innocent man tangled into a web of spies, charming villains, and suspense on a train, has a very strong Hitchcock influence.

Criterion has released a gorgeous Blu-Ray of MINISTRY OF FEAR, made during the height of World War II. Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) is a likeable, soft-spoken young man who has just been released from an asylum in the English countryside. In his first interaction with the outside world, Neale wins a cake at a raffle held at the creepiest carnival since CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI. But, he’s not the intended recipient for the cake. Neale, with cake in hand, boards a London bound train, and he soon has company. A seemingly helpless, elderly blind man boards his compartment. When Neale’s guard is down, this man stops his “blind man act,” clubs Neale, runs off with the cake and is killed in an explosion.

Once in London, Neale decides to investigate. His snooping leads to a séance, a lovely young lady, Carla (Marjorie Reynolds), her adoring, always pleasant brother, Willi (Carl Esmond), Travers, a mysterious tailor (Dan Duryea) and eventually, a hidden Nazi spy ring. In true Hitch fashion, Neale’s self-detective work has Scotland Yard believing he’s a murderer.

Even though MINISTRY OF FEAR is based on a novel by Graham Greene, much of the plot elements here are pure Hitchcock. Visually, MINISTRY OF FEAR is top notch Lang. Violent death is often dealt out in brilliant flashes of light in total darkness. There’s an explosion that takes place in staged slow-motion. The image isn’t mechanically slowed down. The actual flying furniture and smoke are slowed down on the set, giving Neale’s quest a more un-real nightmarish feel. Travers, the tailor, with his frightfully large scissors, is a creepy villain that recalls the master criminals from Lang’s German silent classics. Dan Duryea, who played numerous Lang villains (SCARLET STREET, WOMAN IN THE WINDOW) gives us an unsettling bad guy as Travers. (In an interview, the normally docile Dan Duryea, who was a scoutmaster, said of his screen villains: “I used my past life experiences to motivate me. The one I used when I had to slap a woman around was easy! I was slapping the overbearing teacher who would fail you in her “holier-than-thou” class and enjoy it!”)

Criterion graces MINISTRY OF FEAR with a pristine 2K digital restoration. Cinematographer Henry Sharpe’s (DR. CYCLOPS, King Vidor’s THE CROWD) use of solid blacks and bright whites almost makes scenes from MINISTRY OF FEAR look like striking poster art, and it pops out beautifully here. What hurts MINISTRY OF FEAR is the editing. The first act, with the mysterious cake, and train ride, is done with patience and an eye for building tension. The second act drags with little energy. Lang’s usual editor and close friend at the time was Gene Fowler, Jr, but Paramount assigned him another editor, Archie Marshek.

Lang stated he wasn’t happy with the way Paramount handled MINISTRY OF FEAR, and claimed in later years he caught it on The Late Show, edited to fit a certain time slot. Lang confessed he fell asleep during the screening. MINISTRY OF FEAR is not top-drawer Lang, but it’s highly entertaining and has the feel of a real Nazi nightmare.

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