Home Video Hovel- Ministry of Fear, by Tyler Smith
There’s nothing quite like a quick, efficient thriller; a movie that jumps right into its story and charges full steam ahead. Fritz Lang’s Ministry of Fear is an example of this. It’s the story of a man who gets caught up in a Nazi spy ring. Pretty simple. Premise, character, and tone is all well-established within the first ten minutes. Not even 90 minutes later, it’s over and we’ve been thoroughly entertained.
What is especially impressive is the way Lang manages to move the film along while also taking time to focus on small details that, in some ways, are insignificant to story being told. But, as Lang has shown time and again, these details- be it a specific camera angle or bit of set decoration- somehow become an integral part of the world the characters inhabit.
Take, for instance, the details of our main character. When the film begins, he is watching the clock, anticipating something. We come to find out that he is being released from a mental hospital. Why? Well, that will come later. At the moment, all that matters is that the character has been established as a bit fragile and perhaps still a bit crazy.
This mostly makes for a unique and memorable lead character, played with a very deliberate calm by Ray Milland, but it also comes into play- both directly and indirectly- in the story itself. After all, when a man who accidentally stumbles onto a Nazi spy ring, it seems unlikely. When we discover that this man was recently released from an asylum, everything falls into place, albeit in exactly the wrong way. The outlandishness, the paranoia; the simplest explanation is is the most probable: the man is crazy.
Suddenly, a mere character detail changes the entire nature of the story, not merely for the other characters, but for the audience. How are we to know that we’re not witnessing a lunatic’s paranoid hallucination? The film doesn’t spend a lot of time on this. It is content to merely hint and plant the seed of doubt firmly in our heads and keep moving right along.
Other details include a specific focus on the London air raids, such a regular occurrence that the characters treat it with a fatalistic nonchalance. As our hero ducks through the crowded city streets, attempting to lose the spy tailing him, the sirens go off and everybody is quickly herded into a bunker. The chase is essentially put on hold while bombs are dropped all over London. Though nobody ever addresses it directly- these have become fairly commonplace- it communicates a message that is unmistakably noir. We can scurry about, trying desperately to fight the bad guys, but it really doesn’t matter. For all our plotting and planning, we could be wiped from the face of the planet at any moment. And all the spy rings and evil schemes won’t amount to anything.
These are the things that make Ministry of Fear so much more than a simple thriller. It takes a fairly run-of-the-mill story and layers on contexts that deepen our relationship to the characters and the story. And it does all this while keeping the story going at an effective, satisfying pace. No need to deviate from what’s going on to make a larger point; it’s all right there, if we know where to look.