B&W, 1944, 86 mins. 53 secs.
Directed by Fritz Lang
Starring Ray Milland, Marjorie Reynolds, Carl Esmond, Hillary Brooke, Dan Duryea Indicator (Blu-ray) (UK RB HD), Criterion (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC)
Though loosely adapted from a novel by Graham Greene, this swift and highly entertaining thriller released at the height of World War II takes more than a page from Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, ground zero for the wrong man formula that would reappear in many later suspense films. Director Fritz Lang had already refined the Nazi-themed WWII film to perfection with Man Hunt and Hangmen Also Die!, making this film a sort of unofficial conclusion to a trilogy before he dove into straightforward film noir.
In this case the wrong man is Stephen Neale (Milland), who's just been released from a sanitarium under circumstances not immediately made clear. He decides to visit a local fair where a clairvoyant offers him the correct solution to a contest to win a cake, which Neale proceeds to win. As it turns out the cake is not all it appears to be and was intended for a mysterious man named Mr. Cost (Duryea), and when he boards a train, a blind man attempts to make off with the cake only to run afoul of a Nazi bombing run in the area. Neale seeks help from two refugees running Mothers of Free Nations, the charity behind the fair: Willi (Esmond) and Carla (Reynolds), who become his only hope when he's soon implicated in a web of murder and espionage.
Lang's skill at weaving tricky spy narratives had been obvious since the silent era with his legendary Mabuse films in particular, and that ability to blend style and paranoia into an effective brew is in abundance here even in a big studio Hollywood framework. Milland is stuck with a tricky role that requires him to be somewhat disoriented and possibly mentally unstable (though far less so than the novel), so he plays it as wry and smooth as possible to keep the audience on his side -- a good tactic, as it turned out. Some nicely surreal touches are welcome, too, such as a sudden foot chase that leads into a foggy set straight out of a Universal horror film, a great seance sequence, and a flashy gun-blazing finale filled with clever ideas involving illuminated gun flashes and bullet holes.
Originally released by Paramount, Ministry of Fear was part of the vast studio catalog sold off to Universal who kept it off of the home video market until a VHS release in 1998. In 2013, Criterion released the film on Blu-ray and DVD featuring a solid HD transfer from the best 35mm safety element in the studio's possession and a surprisingly slim batch of extras, namely the trailer, liner notes by Glenn Kenney, and the 18-minute "On Ministry of Fear" with Joe McElhaney dissecting the film's role in Lang's output, its status as an adaptation, and comparisons to Hitchcock.
In 2018, the film made it UK Blu-ray bow from Indicator with an expanded special edition, likewise culled from Universal's worthy source material. The LPCM English mono track still sounds great, with optional English SDH subtitles provided. The film can also be played with "The BFI Interview with Fritz Lang," a 1962 conversation with Stanley Reed at London’s National Film Theatre that fills up almost the whole running time. It's a career-spanning chat that covers German cinema then and now (including extensive discussion of UFA), his departure to Hollywood, the role of film versus television, the technical challenges and collaborative visual ingenuity involved in making Western Union, his marriage and collaborations with Thea von Harbou before she became a Nazi sympathizer, and plenty more. Definitely a must for any Lang fans. You can also hear a selected scene commentary (35 mins.) with author and film historian Neil Sinyard, who dives more into the adaptation process (including Greene's displeasure with the film) and the Langian elements introduced despite the director's inability to change a word of the script. In "Between Two Worlds" (20m55s), film historian Tony Rayns tackles Lang's own unreliability as a primary source of information, the director's up and down tenure at Fox that preceded this film, the groundwork laid here for the Joan Bennett-starring noirs to come, and the psychodrama wave rising at the time from Maya Deren to Spellbound. The Greene connection takes center stage in "Creative Allies" (24m53s) with author Adrian Wootton touching on the author's hot Hollywood status after This Gun for Fire, the source novel's path at Paramount, the dreamlike feeling of the artificial sets, and the powerful status of screenwriter Seton I. Miller. The trailer is included along with a gallery of lobby cards, stills and posters, while the limited edition (3,000 units) packaging also features one of the label's trademark essential booklets with a new Samm Deighan essay, a vintage "Graham Greene on Lang and Ministry of Fear" piece, autobiographical excerpts by Lang, and a sample of reviews from its initial release.