Ministry of Fear (Blu-ray)
Directed by Fritz Lang
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 87 minutes
Audio: PCM 1.0 English
MSRP: $ 29.95
Release Date: March 12, 2013
Review Date: February 25, 2013
After being mistakenly given a cake meant for someone else at a local charity fete, Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) is plunged into a baffling world of spies and villains: from a combative blind man who isn’t blind, a private detective (Erskine Sanford) who’s reluctant to investigate the attack, an Austrian brother and sister (Carl Esmond, Marjorie Reynolds) whose open friendship seems perhaps a bit too convenient, a medium who lies about her whereabouts (Hillary Brooke), and a suspicious Scotland Yard detective (Percy Waram). Amid shootings and séances, bombs and bullets, the unsteady Neale, having just been released from an asylum after a two year stay, finds it hard to trust anyone or to get anyone to believe his fantastic stories.
Adapted from a novel by Graham Greene by Seton I. Miller, the script doesn’t take many breaks for either the protagonist or the viewer to collect his thoughts and assess the clues that have been presented so willy-nilly and at such a momentous pace. Fritz Lang keeps the forward trajectory of the film constantly pushing ahead, and even brief breaks like the séance, moodily and quite effectively filmed cross-cutting between close-ups of its eclectic participants and from an elevated position where we can see them all joined by hands before a murder takes place, keeps things hopping. The film cheats a little bit blaming the séance murder on Neale when it’s quite obvious his gun hasn’t just been fired (no heat on the barrel or bullet casings, no gunpowder residue), but Lang makes sure that the scene changes quickly to sidestep that concern. Because this is one of those films that features a number of individuals who are not as they appear, the fun comes as each disguise is lowered to see who the players really are in this espionage game. With the elements of noir (darkness, deep shadows, femme fatales and weasels operating covertly) and Lang’s quick tempos (danger really seems omnipresent here from that weird charity fair onward), the movie’s breathless rhythm and moody mystery make for a quirky and entertaining hour and a half.
Ray Milland plays the mentally fragile hero quite well, eager to put his past behind him but horrifyingly finding himself involved in a murder of which he’s innocent and the unwitting target for venal spies. Marjorie Reynolds’ Austrian accent fluctuates a bit, and the screenplay doesn’t really offer her an adequate amount of time to get the audience invested in her as either a romantic partner or a femme fatale for Milland. Carl Esmond has the slick Continental charm that might easily be masking a cobra, and Percy Waram’s waxen looks serve a similar function as the Scotland Yard inspector. Dan Duryea makes three memorable appearances in the film as a man of mystery, and you’ll never forget the final one wielding a lethal pair of oversized scissors. Hillary Brooke’s mystifying medium Mrs. Bellane is effective early-on, but her character inexplicably fades from view in later reels.
The film’s original theatrical 1.37:1 aspect ratio is faithfully reproduced in this 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Sharpness is very good throughout, and the grayscale features strong whites but sometimes mediocre black levels. While scratches and dust have been effectively dealt with digitally, a couple of hairs and one piece of overhanging debris have been left intact. The film has been divided into 20 chapters.
The PCM 1.0 (1.1 Mbps) sound mix is exactly what one would expect from a film of this period with the track being shared by dialogue, Victor Young’s music score, and the sound effects. Fidelity is rather good (the bombs dropping on London and an explosion in an enclosed room have some heft to them, and the music has some bottom end) though the quietest scenes reveal a bit of attenuated hiss on occasion.
Fritz Lang scholar Joe McElhaney contributes a video essay on the movie with specific comments on the changes from Graham Greene’s novel to the film screenplay and how this compares to Lang’s other work in Germany and in America. It runs 17 ¼ minutes in 1080p.
The theatrical trailer runs 2 ¼ minutes in 1080p.
The enclosed pamphlet includes the cast and crew list, information on the video and audio transfers, and film critic Glenn Kenny’s analysis of the movie.
The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc and the title of the chapter you’re now in. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
4/5 (not an average)
Fritz Lang’s Ministry of Fear is a good middle-of-the-road thriller of the war years featuring a terrific central performance and fast-paced direction by a cinematic master. Recommended!