Because he made a number of suspense films, Fritz Lang is often compared to Alfred Hitchcock. Their defining difference was that Lang had fame and distinction for his films in other genres. With that broader experience, his thrillers often demonstrate as much interest in the world surrounding the heroes as in their peril. Indeed, the threat often emerges from those surroundings.
While technically an anti-Nazi propaganda film, based on a novel by Graham Greene, Ministry of Fear has similarities to such picaresque Hitchcock adventures as The 39 Steps and Foreign Correspondent. Steven Neale (Ray Milland), released from an asylum at the beginning of the film, struggles to stay one step ahead of the police while trying to understand why a man pretending to be blind almost killed him over a cake. That absurd setup, no doubt Greene’s invention, is the first of a series of menacing incidents produced by one unexpected detail after another.
Lang’s rich atmospherics create an inchoate threat. Blitz-blighted London is conjured with dense design: windows battened against explosive debris; yawning extras in pajamas carrying mattresses into the tube during an air raid; a spotless, modernistic apartment that Neale and his lover Carla Hilfe (Marjorie Reynolds) visit in pursuit of a suspect; a slightly tatty book store. The countryside has its own ambiguous resonance as, for example, a local fundraising fête combines seemingly innocent garden party games, dotty characters, fortune telling and, oh yes, high espionage. All of these luminous details are there to be ignored, the more disturbing for being of questionable relevance. Which are decorative color and which are possibly deadly?
The supposed mystery moves us through this borderline chaos, but provides limited suspense because it is not very difficult to identify the villains. However, with so much danger inexplicably popping out of nowhere, like that contentious cake, everyone and every thing become potentially threatening. Early in the story, for example, Neale involves a private detective, Rennit (Erskine Sanford) who seems poised to be a major character, only for him to disappear. (We eventually learn he was killed, off-camera.) Or when Neale makes the nearly fatal mistake of trusting the bookseller Newland (Thomas Louden), it is never clear whether the latter is a Nazi agent or a naive dupe. Even Carla may be part of the conspiracy, so that Neale’s only certainty is uncertainty.
According to Lotte Eisner’s monograph on Lang, the director apparently did not have a high opinion of Ministry, presumably because he could not control it completely. To be sure, rich with vivid incident as it may be, the story never rises above the thriller format to achieve the relentless paranoia of Lang at his deterministic best. Paradoxically, that contrast between material and execution produces a tension that adds to the film’s power. Hitchcock’s heroes at least usually know the source of their trouble; Lang’s never know what to expect.