© 2013 William Ahearn
“This is a film,” Lotte Eisner writes in Fritz Lang, “for which Lang says he had not much feeling, though he liked Graham Greene’s original novel, and eagerly accepted when his agent called him in New York to tell him of Paramount’s offer of the film.” Lang went on to say – to Eisner and in numerous interviews – that he didn’t negotiate the contract and as a result the clause that would allow him to make changes in the script wasn’t included.
Lang claims the script changed from the time he saw it before the contract signing and what he read after he signed the contract. Patrick McGilligan’s Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast disputes that and suggests that Lang rarely had such a clause in his contracts and that it was “unlikely” that the script had changed. Also left out of Eisner’s version is the fact that – according to McGilligan – Lang still owed Paramount a film from the previous contract. Seton I Miller wrote the screenplay and Miller was also the producer and that left Lang with little room to maneuver in terms of what he could do with the script.
“Anyway,” Lang told Peter Bogdanovich in Fritz Lang In America, “I had signed a contract and I had to fulfill it, that’s all. I saw it recently on television, where it was cut to pieces, and I feel asleep.”
With what Lang now knew about making Hollywood films – insipid endings and all – and what he already knew from making films such as “Spione,” and “The Testament of Dr Mabuse” in Germany, he could have phoned in his direction. He didn’t and the film is another example of Lang’s brilliance as a technician and specifically as a technician working with a tepid script. “The Ministry of Fear” rises above the script that simplified the story and removed any of the so-called moral ambiguities of the Greene novel.
The film opens with a ticking clock in an asylum where Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) is waiting for his release from the two-year sentence imposed for the mercy killing of his wife. (Later it will be revealed he only assisted in his wife’s suicide and that change from the book creates an entirely different take on the character.) Neale is looking forward to the outside world and being jostled by crowds. When he’s buying a train ticket to London, he notices a charity fete going on at a nearby park. He ends up winning a cake – with the help of a fortuneteller – and that begins his pursuit by enemy agents since inside the cake is a roll of microfilm containing British government secrets.
In Fritz Lang, Lotte Eisner notes that “[“Ministry of Fear”] is, of course, a thriller. A definite part of the film noir tradition, full of typical Langian concerns: the ambiguity of guilt, a breaking through a moral trap towards redemption and redefinition of identity, a realistic nightmare where seemingly secure certainties give way suddenly.”
It could be argued – especially under these circumstances – that Eisner’s list of “Langian concerns” are more the sphere of Graham Greene’s novel than Fritz Lang and that all of those concerns only concerned Lang once he arrived in Hollywood. Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton in A Panorama of American Film Noir (1941-1953) also note that “Ministry of Fear” is a thriller and a “film noir” and offer the scene in the subway where “the stark, cold, high-contrast photography harmonizes perfectly with the implacable unfolding of the action” and “Fritz Lang is not one to forget the Expressionist lessons of his youth.” That last statement doesn’t even make any sense although that’s typical of the book. Borde and Chaumeton are less enthusiastic about “Scarlet Street” calling it “less successful” than “Woman In The Window” that “relates to the noir series in its chiaroscuro technique . . . and also because of an increasing tension that gives the work, notwithstanding its implacable logic, a nightmarish rhythm.” For whatever reason, Eisner doesn’t describe any other Fritz Lang film as a “film noir.”
The film received excellent reviews with some interesting observations. Writing in the New York World-Telegram, Alton Cook noted, “The movie version of ‘Ministry of Fear’ has stripped away the mystic and psychic trappings of Graham Greene’s novel and left an ingenious, tense spy story.” In The New York Times, Bosley Crowther wrote, “Fritz Lang, in directing [‘Ministry of Fear,’] has kept a curious off-key, spectral tone insinuating through the telling of a thoroughly captivating tale.” Crowther adds, “Mr Lang has given the picture something of the chilling quality of some of his early German shockers.”
There might be “something” in the way that it moves although the story – as many have pointed out – seems more Hitchcock than Lang and the tacked on ending is just as annoying as the ending of “Woman in the Window.” By ignoring the nuances of Greene’s novel, all that remains is a spy story that exists solely on the surface and that surface is merely glib instead of articulate. Biographer Patrick McGilligan calls the film “eminently watchable” and that it is and yet it’s wholly unsatisfying – as many of his Hollywood films tend to be – as a Fritz Lang film.