The chance to watch, let alone review, any film selected by The Criterion Collection should be considered a treat. The painstaking lengths to which they go, not only preserve a film, but put all the bells and whistles on it, are amazing. When I saw that the Ministry of Fear (Spine #649) was selected to become the next Criterion, I simply had to watch it. The film is, after all, by none other than Fritz Lang (Metropolis), a director who’s work has been selected by Criterion before with M (Spine #30) and, my personal favorite, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Spine #231).
Stephen Neale (Ray Milliand) has recently been released from an asylum (the reasons for which will, of course, be revealed). He has longed to become a part of society again, to feel the hustle and bustle of people and life move all around him once more. While waiting for the train to go back to war-torn London, Stephen visits a countryside benefit for “Mothers of the Free Nation”. He gets some food, plays a few games, and even takes his chance on guessing the weight of a certain cake. It is only after he has his fortune read that things take a turn for the worse. The fortune teller, Mrs. Bellane, gives him the exact weight of the cake. Interested to see if she is right, Stephen guesses again and wins the cake. He takes it with him on the train and his life is never the same.
It doesn’t sound like much of a beginning, but the tale of Stephen Neale and that cake is a wild and dark ride. A ride that takes Stephen up against Nazi agents during the very heart of the London Blitz. He not only falls in love, but risks everything to feel truly alive once more.
By 1944, Fritz Lang was a well respected director in Hollywood and a man who had escaped the persecution of Nazi Germany. Fritz Lang Scholar, Joe McElhaney is quick to point out the director’s history and that many question if Lang was indeed a loyal American. This film, as well as his previous two, Manhunt (1941) and Hangman Also Die (1943), were Lang’s way of saying that, yes, he was a loyal American. All three films had his heroes battling Nazis.
What I took note of in this film was how easily one could see the Ministry of Fear coming from Alfred Hitchcock. The plot was simple enough. Is Stephen Neale crazy or just the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time? The departure from Hitchcock was that Neale is not the everyday man that Hitchcok often used as a protagonist. Neale has skeletons in his closet, dark skeletons, and that alone sets him apart from the everyday man. The ending is also too light to be Mr. Hitchcock’s.
The Blu-ray Experience:
Criterion Collection again has delivered an incredible transfer. It was amazing to see a film as if it was just processed for the very first time. Lang’s camera work cuts dark shadows and narrow corridors appropriate enough for the world Stephen Neale must survive in. The restoration also revealed a Hollywood beauty that has long since passed. Hillary Brooke’s slinky sequined dress catches every piece of light revealing her figure. Her character becomes instantly alluring and dangerous in an instant. Only a 2K restoration and a great dress can deliver such clarity.
The Special Features:
New 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
New interview with Fritz Lang scholar Joe McElhaney
An essay by critic Glenn Kenny