Fritz Lang's 1944 adaptation of Graham Greene's thriller is one of his best American films — though there's a lot of critical dissent on that issue — and its only previous home video edition in the U.S. was a less-than-spectacular VHS release in the '90s.
It is one of the purest distillations of a central Lang obsession — the lone man at the mercy of a vast, sinister reality.
The plot is structured less around logic than mood. The film opens with Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) emerging from an eerie mental hospital, only to find himself in an even more surreal environment: Wandering into a local fair, he is mistaken for a Nazi spy and is thrust into a nightmarish world of unfathomable intrigue. With the exception of an unconvincing tacked-on ending, the movie is a relentless procession of sinister shadows and bizarre conspiracies. Lang's nightmarish vision has antecedents in Poe, Kafka and Louis Feuillade's serials, and its impact can be felt in David Lynch, Thomas Pynchon and Robert Aldrich's “Kiss Me Deadly.”
Criterion has put out a fine-looking new digital transfer, with excellent grays that are essential to Lang's expressive black-and-white visuals. It's relatively light on extras: Besides the original trailer, the only thing on the disc is an OK 18-minute interview with scholar Joe McElhaney. I found the essay by Glenn Kenny (included in the insert) more astute.
"Ministry of Fear": (Criterion, Blu-ray, $29.95; DVD, $19.95)
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).