Introducing a retrospective of movies based on his works from the stage of London’s National Film Theatre in 1984, Graham Greene counted Ministry of Fear, a 1944 adaptation of his 1943 novel, as one of the several “very bad” ones. In wry support of this assertion, he told an anecdote wherein the film’s director, Fritz Lang, approached him at a bar years after its release and personally apologized for having made it. Greene’s dismissal of the picture can be seen to derive, depending on your perspective, from either critical detachment or enlightened self-interest (at the same event, he allowed that the only pictures he found completely laudable were director Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol and The Third Man, from 1948 and 1949, two indeed indisputable masterpieces but also the two films on which Greene most actively collaborated). As for Lang’s own misgivings concerning this actually quite excellent picture, they could have had something to do with the kind of filmmaker he aspired to be at the time.
The year before, 1943, saw the release of Lang’s Hangmen Also Die, a creative collaboration with two other German artists in exile: composer Hanns Eisler and playwright Bertolt Brecht. This was a dark, moody, detailed story of European resistance to Nazi occupation that wore its propagandistic heart on its sleeve. As had 1941’s Man Hunt, Lang’s adaptation of Geoffrey Household’s novel Rogue Male, in which a more heroic variant on The Most Dangerous Game’s Count Zaroff makes a project of hunting down and killing . . . Hitler. Greene’s novel (The Ministry of Fear), in which an innocent (sort of) Englishman is drawn into a Nazi espionage machination in Blitz-battered Britain, must have appeared to Lang to present opportune material with which to continue his own war effort. As his biographer and longtime friend Lotte Eisner puts it, “Lang wanted to make another anti-Nazi statement.”
But circumstances constrained him. It’s probable that the denazification of the source material was the work of producer and screenwriter Seton I. Miller, whom Lang was powerless to oppose because of a missing clause in his standard contract, as Eisner tells it (she amusingly dismisses Miller as “a former saxophonist and bandsman”). Whoever was responsible, it can’t be denied: the absence of standard-issue Menacing Nazis is one of the distinguishing characteristics of
Ministry of Fear. None of its villains wear armbands or hang the Nazi flag on their wall, even in their most secret headquarters. Though the first thing the protagonist, Stephen Neale (Ray Milland), does in this movie after his release from an asylum is purchase a train ticket to London, Ministry of Fear never shows that great city torn apart by bombardments. Its sole depiction of the Blitz takes place during a train ride and spills out onto an empty field in which sits a lone building, where one of the early villains takes refuge and is very conveniently obliterated by a bomb. None of the bad guys is even allowed a grandiose speech in which to outline a horrific ideology and vision for a totalitarian future. Nazism, in other words, is arguably reduced to what Alfred Hitchcock called a MacGuffin—that is, an it-could-be-anything pretext for the suspenseful action. (It’s worth remembering here that Greene was once a film critic, and a sharp one at that, and that he had a particular antipathy toward Hitchcock, whose pictures he thought overly tricksy.)
But the threat that Neale has to first run from and then face down is also expanded from the source, into something that feels, ultimately, undefeatable—a relentless manifestation of dread. Forced to deal with menace and fear on a less specific level, Lang returned to his instincts, summoning the great cinematic maker of primal nightmarish myth that he had practically begun his career as and crafting a work that is roundly in the tradition of such magnificently doom-laden paranoid silent thrillers of his as The Spiders (1919), Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922), and Spies (1928). (Not to mention 1921’s Destiny, the film that convinced Hitchcock himself that the art form of the future was being printed on celluloid.)
While Miller’s script gives short shrift to Neale’s psychological handicap—in the Greene, his guilt over mercy-killing his ill wife is exorcised in the course of his anti-Nazi quest—the movie’s art direction, by Hans Dreier (who had worked with Josef von Sternberg in the 1920s on the expressionism-inflected The Docks of New York and the now lost The Dragnet) and relative newcomer Hal Pereira (fresh from Double Indemnity), provides Lang with sufficient physical material to cast his dark spell. He presents the narrative as a series of traps, bracketed by a larger one. The movie opens with a shot of a clock, which, at the stroke of six in the evening, sets our hero, the polite, temporarily contemplative Neale (played with exemplary nervous suavity by Milland), free from the asylum. (The circumstances that landed him there, the killing of his wife, are meted out to the viewer in bits and pieces, and mainly serve the purpose of prompting Neale to iterate that he does not necessarily consider himself an “innocent” man.) Under the eyes of a kindly doctor, he determines to set out into the world and make a new, better life for himself. He eagerly buys a train ticket to London, but before he can even get to the station, he’s ensnared. Drawn by lights, he enters something like a hedge maze, which pulls him into a charity garden fete—an event for the war effort, he’s told—then into a fortune-teller’s tent, where he inadvertently says the magic words that compel the faux clairvoyant to instruct him how to win the cake that’s going to get him into all the trouble.
Almost immediately after that, it’s down the rabbit hole for Neale, by way of a grim train compartment hedged in with blackout curtains, also occupied by a pushy blind man who isn’t really blind. After the action starts, Neale’s adaptation to his new situation is surprisingly swift; seeing the handle of a gun that was being used against him moments before sticking out of a mound of dirt, he unhesitatingly retrieves it. But, as we soon see, he hasn’t so much been transformed into a man of action as he is demonstrating his soon-to-be-shown-as-mistaken belief that he’s been let out into a world where things make sense. Following a trail dictated to him by this belief, he finds himself attending a séance that could have been staged by Dr. Mabuse himself, were it not being led by an icy blonde who bears the name of, but is not, the fortune-teller who gave him the winning weight of the cake. (Said blonde is played by the Queens-born Hillary Brooke, whose promising run of platinumized femme fatale roles would be largely forgotten after she was co-opted to play a non-love-interest to Abbott and Costello on U.S. television.) And there, a gun goes off and kills one of the participants, and the gun turns out to be the one Neale was counting on to establish his innocence. And so it continues.
“Nazis. Bombs. They shouldn’t have let you out of that asylum, Mr. Neale.” So observes a black-derbied figure who has been trailing our hero throughout, at the point when he finally deigns to speak. He’s ostensibly a “friend,” but as he comports himself in this particular world, it’s hard not to see him as an ominous talisman—particularly when his silhouetted figure emerges from a doorway at the end of a shootout that has seen Neale and his female ally, Carla (Marjorie Reynolds), make their way out of the labyrinth that Neale walked into at the film’s beginning. Its egress is, not unusually, a staircase—here a series of receding rectangles rather than a spiral, but just as vertigo-inducing as any high circle.
All of these effects, and their staying power, are the result of the way Lang sees space and conveys it through the camera. Even the bookshop where Neale is able to take temporary refuge is rendered sinister and claustrophobic by mere dint of a very slight forward dolly with which Lang makes the shop’s dingy walls close in on, and its ceiling tilt down toward, him. Even the inanimate environment is made a threat.
In his 1979 study of Lang’s films, Robert Armour writes that Ministry of Fear is too broad—too “easy to figure out,” as he puts it. But the film’s design takes Greene’s title at its word, from even before the point when Neale takes the cake. Just as this is not a propaganda film, it isn’t a puzzle film either. It’s a nightmare film, pure and simple. Armour objects to a scene near the film’s climax in which a tailor, played with uncharacteristic but altogether deliberate blandness by Dan Duryea (Lang’s future sleazebag in 1944’s The Woman in the Window and the next year’s ineffable Scarlet Street), “dials a number on the phone with a gigantic pair of tailor’s scissors, so large they are ludicrous.” Well, exactly. Ludicrous and horrifying. The oversize scissors are an inheritance not merely from the dream logic of, say, Alice in Wonderland but from the early twentieth-century visions of the surrealists, the expressionists, and the German filmmakers responsible for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and, of course, Destiny and The Spiders. Stymied from making the movie he believed he wanted to make, for Ministry of Fear Fritz Lang simply fell back on . . . being Fritz Lang. And he ended up making a movie that is timelessly his in a way that, for better or worse, Hangmen Also Die is not (although I should say here that I believe that to be a superb film too). And for that, he certainly had nothing to apologize for.
Glenn Kenny is the chief film critic at MSN Movies.