Fritz Lang’s Private War: Ministry of Fear

Throughout his tenure in Hollywood, directing 22 features between 1936 and 1956, Fritz Lang strove to create films as impactful as the ones that made his reputation in Weimar Germany, when he had full control over his projects. From hard-hitting dramas to westerns to war films to noirs – with a quasi-musical thrown into the mix – Lang tackled a variety of genres, but he kept coming back to the crime stories and suspense thrillers he was famous for. Three of the latter that he made while the Second World War was being waged across the Atlantic had another purpose, though: showing his adoptive country which side he was on.

The first, Man Hunt, was released in June 1941, six months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and America’s belated entry into the war. As one who fled Nazi Germany, Lang knew all too well the dangers they posed to Europe and the world at large. In this way, Man Hunt’s opening sequence, in which a big-game hunter gets Adolf Hitler in his sights, but doesn’t pull the trigger, doubles as a form of wish fulfillment and a missed opportunity. An assassination – successful this time – is also central to 1943’s Hangmen Also Die! Conceived as a collaboration between Lang and fellow émigré Bertolt Brecht, Hangmen depicts the fallout from the killing of one Hitler’s proxies in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. The film from this period that aligned most with his interest in espionage and subterfuge, however, was 1944’s Ministry of Fear, which premiered in London (appropriately enough) 80 years ago this month.

Right at the top, Lang establishes the motif of a clock, which is shown ticking away the seconds under the opening titles. A pullback reveals it is being patiently watched by Stephen Neale (Ray Milland, one year before his Oscar-winning turn in Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend), who wants to know the exact moment he’s free to leave the asylum where he’s spent the last two years. While waiting, he converses with his doctor, who advises against going to London because of the crowds and bombing raids, neither of which puts Stephen off. More darkly, he’s cautioned not to get involved with the police in any way (for reasons that go unspoken), but Stephen’s intention to lead “a quiet life” is put to the test when he wins a cake at a charity fete and runs afoul of a Nazi spy ring using the charity as a front.

Lang had an immediate interest in Graham Greene’s novel The Ministry of Fear when it was published in 1943, but was beaten to the punch by Paramount, which had deeper pockets. Fortuitously, the studio wanted Lang to direct its adaptation, but as he later told Peter Bogdanovich, “when I came back here and saw what had been done with the script, I was terribly shocked.” So shocked, in fact, he wanted to back out, but his agent informed him he couldn’t. “Anyway, I had signed a contract and had to fulfill it, that’s all.” Whatever his attitude toward the project, Lang in work-for-hire mode was still capable of pulling off taut suspense sequences. (And as terse as he was about Ministry of Fear with Bogdanovich, he had even less to say about 1950’s American Guerilla in the Philippines and 1953’s The Blue Gardenia.)

In one such sequence, Stephen reluctantly takes part in a séance (during which the clock motif returns in a big way) that ends with him being implicated in a murder, harking back to the blackmail schemes and occult touches in Lang’s Dr. Mabuse films. Meanwhile, the stark lighting anticipated his hard turn into noir territory with The Woman in the Window (also 1944), Scarlet Street (1945), and The Big Heat (1953). Some of Ministry’s best features, though, are the details of everyday life in wartime London, like the mentions of “dim-out lights,” signs warning citizens to “Be on Your Guard,” and an air raid that sends everyone scrambling into a bomb shelter, including Stephen and a suspicious man he’s trying to evade. That this person doesn’t turn out to be who Stephen thinks is typical of Greene’s tangled plot, where it’s difficult to know who to trust at any given moment. “Don’t Help the Enemy!” reads another sign Lang’s camera lingers on. “Careless Talk May Give Away Vital Secrets.”

After having his hands tied on Ministry of Fear, Lang was eager to call his own shots again, forming a partnership with actress Joan Bennett and producer Walter Wanger. Their company, Diana Productions, only made two films before budget overruns on the second (1947’s Secret Behind the Door) led to its dissolution. For a brief moment, however, Lang enjoyed his independence. If he watched the clock while waiting out his commitment to Paramount, at least he knew what lay ahead.

“Ministry of Fear” is available on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection. It was also streaming on the Criterion Channel until just last month, when it mysteriously disappeared.

Craig J. Clark watches a lot of movies. He started watching them in New Jersey, where he was born and raised, and has continued to watch them in Bloomington, Indiana, where he moved in 2007. In addition to his writing for Crooked Marquee, Craig also contributes the monthly Full Moon Features column to Werewolf News. He is not a werewolf himself (or so he says).

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