Classic Film Review: Fritz Lang’s choppy, atmospheric version of Graham Greene’s “Ministry of Fear”(1944)

There’s no mistaking the look of a Fritz Lang film, especially the dark, soundstage-bound productions, with their elaborate arrangement of light, shadows and faces in the compositions.

But “Ministry of Fear,” his film of Seton I. Miller’s adaptation of a Graham Greene novel, had me double-checking the credits. Not to ensurethat Lang, the director of “M” and “Fury” and “Scarlet Street” and “The Big Heat,” was actually behind the camera. But to figure out what happened to this script.

No, that’s the right running time. It wasn’t hacked up in the ensuing years. No, this wasn’t Lang’s Hollywood debut after fleeing the Nazis. He’d made a few U.S. films already. All of those “my hotel room ransacked” references about action taken care of off-camera, that jaw-droppingly abrupt ending, were the way it “played” as released.

Compare this to the better Greene adaptations of the era — “The Third Man,” “This Gun for Hire,” “The Fallen Idol.” This script is boilerplate, perfunctory — “Confidential Agent” or “The Smugglers” directed by someone who knew where he wanted the camera and that shadow to fall over the leading man’s face ,but not fretting all that much over plot.

And. That. Plot. A man freshly-released from a mental hospital wins a cake at a rural “fete” by mistake, because Nazi spies have hidden microfilm in it? They come after it, and him, and he tries to unravel this mystery and expose their spy ring via comically direct, dangerously blunt questions about “criminal activity.” He hires a tipsy old man “private investigator,” sits through a seance and falls in with the brother-sister Austrian expat charity organizers whose lineage screams out “Suspects One and Two.”

Hitchcock would have rendered this a romp. Lang takes it ever so seriously, even at its most ludicrous.

Ray Milland is Stephen Neale, our hero, staring down a clock to the end of his incarceration when we meet him. It isn’t guilt — Catholic or otherwise (Greene’s trademark) — over how he got there that drives his actions. It’s his fear of the police locking him up again. Any spying or shooting pinned on him will be his doom.

Dan Duryea plays a scissors-wielding tailor who figures in the story, Hillary Brooke is the seductive medium who toys with our hero, even lets him have her purse pistol, at one point. Future “Batman” butler Alan Napier is a psychoanalyst who writes intellectual dissections of Naziism.

And Marjorie Reynolds and Carl Esmond are the Austrian siblings our Mr. Neale, on the lam and on the hunt for Nazis spies, falls in with.

“Ministry of Fear” has a hint of paranoia when a lot more than a hint was called for. Lang stages a visually striking shooting and unpredictable shoot out framed in an impressively deep composition.

But as Hitchcock best articulated, the great virtue of soundstage production was the degree of directorial control over what you put on film. None of the on-location variables or distractions. Lang found all these striking images, but he and Paramount didn’t wrestle the script into something with any flow to it.

Milland is passably interesting as the lead, but little of what made him crackle in his best performances is evident.

A lot of what’s “sinister” here is frittered away in one-off scenes or two-off cameos. Nothing at all is done with Duryea’s tailor, for instance. There’s no confrontation with this or that villain, on up the chain of command, leading to the spy master in charge of it all.

It’s a fast and frustrating film that seems to skip past a lot of “the good stuff.”

Watching it now, “Ministry of Fear” seems a lot more of a string of grand moments poorly-linked by blown opportunities. We see “Lang” in the credits and we leap to “classic” conclusions. To say this isn’t one of his best is about as respectful as one should get.

Rating: “approved,” violence

Cast: Ray Milland, Marjorie Reynolds, Carl Esmond, Hillary Brooke, Alan Napier, Erskine Sanford and Dan Duryea

Credits: Directed by Fritz Lang, script by Seton I. Miller, based on the Graham Greene novel. A Paramount (Universal Home Video) release on Tubi, other streaming platforms.

Running time: 1:26

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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