Spying the Noir: Fritz Lang’s Ministry of Fear
By 1959, when making cinema history via Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock was weary of male victims on the run. In North by Northwest, he delivered what screenwriter Ernest Lehman described as “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures.” Essentially, it was the last great work by the director to feature an innocent man who has to prove his innocence, a theme he had mastered in his 1930s British films The Man Who Knew Too Much (with Peter Lorre, which would be remade in the 1950s with Jimmy Stewart), Young and Innocent, and the best of the bunch, The 39 Steps. North By Northwest is like a masterful look at the past, a time when Hitchcock already made the theme his personal stamp.
Though he didn’t own up to Fritz Lang’s influence upon him (he denied having seen M to François Truffaut in the latter’s famous book-length interview), Lang took on “Hitchcock” in his wartime spy thriller, Ministry of Fear (1944), now remastered on DVD and Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection. Hitchcock’s spy thrillers of the 1940s, again featuring innocence on the run, satisfied the Office of War Information’s requirement for content addressing the war and demonizing the Axis powers. As a British émigré, who knew the Blitzkrieg as an ever encroaching threat, Hitch responded with coercive entertainment that would, ideally, help support War Bond purchases. A German émigré who escaped Nazis, Lang counteracts in kind against the powerful madness that absorbed his people, almost for good. And yet Lang’s film, like Hitchcock’s, makes Nazism nothing more than a shadow behind more conventional heavies (unlike his two earlier anti-Nazi films, Manhunt and Hangmen Also Die!). Less so than Anatole Litvak’s Confession of a Nazi Spy (1939; now available in America through the Warner Archive), Ministry still entertains before it preaches.
Adept at using cinema for art and entertainment since his early career, Lang treats the Graham Greene “entertainment” (contrasting the author’s more serious “novels”) in modest, yet effective fashion. At face value, Ministry plays much like the noir This Gun for Hire (also a Greene adaptation), with that film’s paced action and development, even if Alan Ladd’s Raven is a killer turned victim/fugitive. (Ironically, Frank Tuttle’s film removed Greene’s wartime intrigue by moving the international European setting, including an unnamed communist country and concerning a government agent, to different Californian cities.)
Ministry of Fear, with its title capturing both purity and severity in a snap (“Ministry” both holy and doom-laden, and “Fear” all the latter) begins equally phantasmagorical. Owning the opening frame, in Lang fashion, is a ticking clock whose hand will free an imprisoned man. The opening conceit returns to Hitchcock’s innocence punished, in that Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) faced the sentence not for harsh murder but the mercy killing of his sick wife. Lang had already reduced humanity to a system in Metropolis, and here he borrows from self for a fresh result. Awaiting his train to London, Neale visits a village festival, in which Lang notes the carnivalesque in the content to mirror the narrative turns to come. After guessing the weight of a cake, Neale visits a fortune teller who gives him the correct amount to win. Seeing it as nothing more than good luck after bad, Neale wins the cake, after a woman at the stand desperately tries to get it back. Today, an actor with such stature as Dan Duryea appearing in background is clearly portentous – sure enough, he reappears two more times in different guises. As Lang delivers it, Duryea means bad business to come for Neale. Soon enough, on the train, a man faking blindness attacks Neale to steal the cake, running off into a bizarre scene amidst an air raid, from which the thief doesn’t survive. Those delighting in the already delirious steps will thrill during the next scene: a séance, in which Neale is pinned for having killed, yes, Dan Duryea.
Fans describing this as noir aren’t off the mark. With the connections to This Gun for Hire, the wandering traveler Neale feels a lot like Chandler’s Marlowe, encountering all kinds as he investigates. For those who think another Greene adaptation, The Third Man (by Carol Reed), to be the best type of noir, Ministry will come as a fine companion piece. Lang enthusiasts and experts, such as Joe McElhaney who offers a solid video commentary on the Criterion disk, will note the filmmaker’s complex direction, such as a Scotland Yard ally at first appearing sinister at two moments. While noteworthy auteurist stamps, the complex images hardly seep into the narrative, which is molded more by studio considerations of the crime/spy genres of the time (a light-handed joke a la Hitchcock comes as a coda). Here Lang implies a vague sense of justice, while for Neale, such has been rightly resolved. In the role of Neale, an always weighty Ray Milland lacks the slight demeanor that drives rapid thrillers best. His speeches, intended as pauses of character development, leave us wondering, in frustration, if his character’s about to stay put. The following year, Milland would work better in The Lost Weekend; for the time being, Lang kept him moving.
Matthew Sorrento teaches film at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ. He is the author of The New American Crime Film (McFarland, 2012) and a contributor to the forthcoming Wiley-Blackwell Companion to the War Film.