Ministry of Fear (Blu-ray Review)11 Mar, 2013 By: Mike Clark
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Stars Ray Milland, Marjorie Reynolds, Carl Esmond, Dan Duryea.
As unlikely as it seems — and as Patrick McGilligan notes in his outstanding bio Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast — there was a compressed period in the mid-1940s when the director was in a commercially successful groove, a harmonious streak that apparently came to an end with early 1948’s money-hemorrhaging Secret Beyond the Door, which Olive Films put out on Blu-ray not too long ago. This was the Woman in the Window/Scarlet Street era when Lang almost seemed to be employing co-star Dan Duryea as a kind of sleazy good luck charm. Duryea also shows up in this predictably expressionistic wartime Paramount release to cause disproportionate mischief despite only a handful of scenes. A Nazi-centered espionage thriller that I first saw when I was either 12 or a freshly turned 13 on my local CBS affiliate’s Wednesday prime-time “Paramount Theater,” the movie’s initial plotting mechanism turns on a weight-guessing contest involving a cake at a charity fair in a provincial English community — a device that for some reason made an impression and stayed with me for decades.
Thanks in part to a deep dark secret that nonetheless made the papers, Ray Milland’s character is nothing if not paranoid here — so Lang and screenwriter Seton I. Miller begin the story where it belongs, though divulging the location here will spoil a good opening scene’s visual punch line. Winning the cake hardly improves matters and indeed almost gets Milland killed, justifying his state of what critic Glenn Kenny refers to in Criterion’s liner notes as “nervous suavity” throughout the picture, which is the best description of Milland’s entire career (arguably The Lost Weekend aside) that I have ever read. Source novelist Graham Greene (whose otherwise same-titled original had a “The” in the title) was no fan of the movie — nor, says Kenny, was Lang himself, who may have preferred that Miller’s script have been more of an overtly anti-Nazi tract. But until a jarringly abrupt tack-on at the end that feels half-hearted, the movie is better than good — utilizing masterful Hans Dreier-Hal Pereira art direction and what look in some cases to be grandiose sets — though maybe it is merely Lang and cinematographer Henry Sharp having fun with lenses. Sharp is a cinematographer with whom I was unfamiliar, but it turns out that he shot the big-screen peaks of both the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields (respectively, Duck Soup and It’s a Gift). Thus, the distance to working with Lang was long, though in this case it’s a very simpatico matchup.
Neither Kenny nor Lang scholar Joe McElhaney (interviewed on screen in a supplement) address what is for me is the movie’s biggest problem: the lack of heat between Milland and love interest Marjorie Reynolds (whose only other ‘A’-picture leads were in a pair of Bing Crosby vehicles: the rarely shown Dixie and the Astaire-Berlin perennial Holiday Inn). Initially a blonde, Reynolds didn’t project much of a distinctive personality with anyone in her early years, but I always liked her as “Peg” on TV’s “The Life of Riley” in the ’50s after she gained weight and darkened her hair. She was an excellent foil for top-billed William Bendix, who was nervous himself every Friday night — though no one would claim suavely so. And speaking of ’50s TV, there’s a memorably slinky bit here for Hillary Brook, who became a memorable foil for Abbott & Costello on their syndicated series around the time she was also Jimmy Hunt’s mother (one who turns scary after the creatures “get” her) in the original Invaders from Mars.