Ministry of Fear
Criterion Collection; Blu-ray, $29.95; DVD, $19.95; not rated
Loosely based on a thriller by Graham Greene, Fritz Lang’s “Ministry of Fear,” from 1944, begins with a brilliant, dreamlike sequence, some 20 minutes in length, that seems to have been spun from the principal themes and most memorable images of Lang’s silent work in Weimar Germany.
A man (Ray Milland) sits in a darkened room staring at a giant clock (an image out of “Destiny,” from 1921); at the stroke of midnight he will be freed from the mental institution to which he has been confined for crimes as yet unknown to the audience (recalling the framing story written by Lang for Robert Wiene’s “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”), from which he wanders into a charity fun fair somewhere in the English countryside (mysteriously open for business even as German bombers approach), where he is greeted by a little girl bouncing a ball (a quote from “M”) and directed to the booth of a fortune teller (one of Dr. Mabuse’s many disguises).
The surreal chain of events continues, as Milland is given the secret information required to win a cake in a contest, a mistake that earns the ire of a mysterious gentleman in a morning coat (Dan Duryea in the first of several memorable performances for Lang), who sends a blind man who is not blind (a persistent figure in Lang’s body of work) to recover the inexplicably important pastry. A chase across a darkly Expressionist heath follows, ending when a German bomb arrives just in time to annihilate Milland’s pursuer.
For the balance of its 87 minutes “Ministry of Fear” seems to be waking up slowly from this initial nightmare, as Seton I. Miller’s screenplay fills in information we might have preferred to live without, and the enigmatic action resolves itself into a fairly conventional spy thriller, complete with a love interest (Marjorie Reynolds) and an exculpatory explanation for Milland’s initial confinement.
Yet the fateful geometry of Lang’s visual style never falters (a stairwell chase becomes a cubist explosion of intersecting planes), and, in a late entrance, the reigning ice queen of 1940s noir, Hillary Brooke, arrives to channel the chilly eroticism of Brigitte Helm’s robot in “Metropolis.”
“Ministry of Fear” itself arrives in a pristine new high-definition transfer from the Criterion Collection, with extras that include an interview with the Lang scholar Joe McElhaney and an essay by the critic Glenn Kenny.
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