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Graham Greene’s 1943 novel The Ministry of Fear – a “wrong man” story set during the London Blitz in which a recently institutionalised person accidentally obtains a cake containing secret Nazi microfilm – seems a perfect fit for Fritz Lang. Lang has called Greene one of his favourite writers,1 and given the preponderance in both artists’ work of catholic guilt explored through paranoid crime melodrama, it’s easy to see why.

This was likely apparent to Lang when he attempted to purchase the book’s rights to produce and direct a film of it himself. Paramount capitalised on this by outbidding Lang, then hiring him on a 10-week contract to direct. After reading the script, Lang was mortified by the changes to Greene’s original narrative, but found there were no clauses in his contract that allowed him input on the screenplay, nor any that allowed him to leave the project. Cornered in an alley like one of his characters, he directed the film out of obligation. Lang’s own estimation of the resulting film, Ministry of Fear (1944), was low, and when seeing it decades later on TV “cut to pieces”, he fell asleep.2

Yet viewed by a spectator, the film remains a fantastic and effective paranoid thriller. And like many of the gun-for-hire films by great directors of its period, part of its intrigue is due to its compromises, acting within itself a discourse on auteur theory, the studio system during the ’40s, and American propaganda during World War II.

The source of Lang’s dejection was the film’s writer and associate producer Seton I. Miller, who wasn’t, as Lang often dismissed him, a saxophone player who had never made films before.3 In reality Miller had worked with Howard Hawks and Allan Dwan since the silent and early sound eras, and won an Oscar for co-scripting Here Comes Mr. Jordan (Alexander Hall, 1941). Miller’s screenplay streamlined much of Greene’s novel, removing its discursive style and sanitising the murky moral history of the book’s protagonist Arthur Rowe (renamed Stephen Neale and played by Ray Milland in the film). In the book Rowe has killed his sick and incapacitated wife by directly poisoning her drink.4 In the film’s backstory, Neale didn’t go through with the murder, but his wife found the poison herself and died by suicide.

Lang’s key issue was that Miller’s script removed any “searching examination of the hero’s psychological problems”.5 Greene agreed, noting particularly that the screenplay “cut out the whole middle third of the book in which Rowe goes into a nursing home with amnesia and tries to sort out his life. Without this section the whole point of the novel is missing, and the story doesn’t exist.”6 And so, the film is unsurprisingly most brilliant when it adheres to the novel, allowing Lang and Greene’s geniuses to work in situ. For instance, the sequence at the charity fair where Neale receives the cake contains some of the most sustained and unnerving filmmaking in Lang’s whole career. There is a sense of true paranoia creeping in as the overly-polite friendliness of the villagers morphs into overly-polite disagreement due to Neale’s attempt to keep the cake. All this is helped by a confident performance by Milland in the role of an apparent everyman hiding something deeply troubling, not unlike his latently paedophilic military school teacher in The Major and the Minor (Billy Wilder, 1942).

Despite Lang’s misgivings, there are also brilliant moments he was able to extract from Miller’s inventions, such as opening the narrative on Neal’s release from the asylum he is confined in for his wife’s “mercy killing”. The idea itself – that Neale leaves the mental institute during the London Blitz, thus finding the outside world crazier than when he left it – is effective, but simple. Lang adds complexity to this by staging Neale’s exit in an overhead crane shot that tracks down over the institution’s barbed gates. The gates are not positioned to frame Neale’s position as one of confinement; instead he strolls comfortably by trimmed hedges towards a great unknown behind the large doors. The typical dichotomy of imprisonment is deliberately muddled, as though to ask what’s more insane: the quiet, monotonous world of the asylum, or the destabilised world of WWII England.

Even when Miller’s limited approach leads to hokey story beats, Lang remains in total control of the visuals and mood, and the once-leading director of German expressionism manages to create a world of sparse geometrical interiors and exteriors reminiscent of M (1931), and curtains hiding an endless array of secret rooms reminiscent of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). Lang scholar Joe McElhaney finds the latter central to Lang’s worldview, separating Ministry of Fear (1944) from the “wrong man” films made by 1940s Hollywood’s other committed crime film formalist, Alfred Hitchcock. 

“A film like Saboteur (Hitchcock, 1942) [tears] off the mask of [the villains] and shows that underneath they are really Nazis. In Lang’s work we don’t have that assurance. You tear off the mask, and under it you find another mask, and another one… [Similarly] there’s always the idea in Lang of the ‘secret beyond the door’. But of course when you open the door and find what you think is the truth, you find just another question.”7

Ministry of Fear (1944) is one of the many anti-Nazi films Lang made during the war, alongside Man Hunt (1941) and Hangmen Also Die! (1943). Elhaney rejoins that for Lang, making anti-Nazi films clarified his commitment to democracy and American values.7 Perhaps because of this, the propagandistic elements of Lang’s wartime work do not totally deviate from Hitchcock’s, and like in Lifeboat (1944), the seemingly friendly and helpful Germanic man is, of course, still secretly working for the heimat. With the killing of the Austrian “defector” Willi (Carl Esmond) in Ministry of Fear’s climax, the circle for Lang is complete. In order to clear assumptions about his allegiances, he, like his hero, must also make a mercy killing. 

It is a testament to both his strength as a film artist and his ability to work within the studio system that Ministry of Fear retains the real nightmarish vision of Lang’s other work. So much so that an incredibly abrupt conclusion, likely grafted on by the studio, plays as disorienting and suspicious as anything else Neale encounters. Would Lang’s original vision for Greene’s novel have produced a stronger film? Perhaps, but, given the imperfection of some of Lang’s more independent American work like Secret Beyond the Door (1947), this is not necessarily a guarantee. In searching for an answer to this question, we may be left like a Lang protagonist: endlessly finding doors behind doors, films behind films. 

Ministry of Fear (1944 USA 86 mins)

Prod co: Paramount Pictures Associate Prod: Seton I. Miller Dir: Fritz Lang Scr: Seton I Miller, based on the novel The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene Phot: Henry Sharp Ed: Archie Marshek Art Dir: Hans Dreier, Hal Pereira Mus: Victor Young
Cast: Ray Milland, Marjorie Reynolds, Carl Esmond, Hillary Brooke, Percy Waram, Dan Duryea, Alan Napier, Erskine Sanford

Endnotes

  1. Lang quoted in Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg, “Fritz Lang 1973” in Fritz Lang Interviews, ed. Barry Keith Grant (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003), p. 110.
  2. Lang quoted in Peter Bogdanovich, Fritz Lang in America (New York: Praeger, 1969).
  3. Fritz Lang Interviews, ed. Barry Keith Grant (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003).
  4. Graham Greene, The Ministry of Fear (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1963).
  5. Gene D. Phillips, Out of the Shadows: Expanding the Canon of Classic Film Noir (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2012), p. 70.
  6. Greene quoted in Phillips, p. 70.
  7. Joe McElhaney, “Joe McElhaney on MINISTRY OF FEAR,” filmed 2012 at The Criterion Collection, New York City, NY, video: criterionchannel.com/ministry-of-fear/videos/joel-mcelhaney-on-ministry-of-fear
  8. Joe McElhaney, “Joe McElhaney on MINISTRY OF FEAR,” filmed 2012 at The Criterion Collection, New York City, NY, video: criterionchannel.com/ministry-of-fear/videos/joel-mcelhaney-on-ministry-of-fear