Peter Glenville/ UK/ 1955/ 91 mins
On Blu-ray from Mon 11 Mar 2019
In an unnamed East European country, a Cardinal (Alec Guinness) is wrongly accused of treason. The country has recently thrown off the shackles of Nazism, only for a grimly authoritarian strain of Communism to take over. The interrogator (Jack Hawkins) tasked with extracting a confession is an old associate from the resistance, and knows from experience his former comrade won’t crack under physical torture. Instead, he decides to adopt a rigorous programme of mental pressure. The two begin an erudite war of attrition that takes place over several months.
Writer Bridget Boland, who adapted her own play for the screen, was obviously fascinated by human psychology, and how people can be manipulated. She was also co-writer of the screenplay for Gaslight, which coined a phrase that has entered the modern lexicon. Hawkins‘ interrogator uses the same approach to chip away at the aloof, prideful Cardinal Guinness‘ formidable psychological defences. The result is an interesting duel between two great actors making the most of chewy theatrical dialogue that doesn’t quite survive intact the transition to the more naturalistic medium of film, but still holds a hypnotic appeal thanks to the skill with which it is performed.
Glenville’s direction is also that of someone clearly used to the stage. He’s remarkably confident in the closed confines of a single room as the two men circle each other like wary pugilists. Other scenes which open up the story to a wider context, such as the opening mass, are less assured. In any case, the eye is drawn inexorably to the figure of Guinness and, perhaps wisely, Glenville keeps his camera trained on his principal asset as much as possible.
The Prisoner was controversial on its release; criticised as being both anti-Catholic and banned from Cannes film festival as being anti-Communist (which seems a distinctly odd position to take with the benefit of hindsight – perhaps it was a statement in opposition to the shameful decimation of Hollywood by the House Un-American Activities Committee at the time). To modern eyes, it’s clear that it is critical of abuse of power in general, whether it be wielded by the church or the state. The Cardinal is condemned for his arrogance and the pride he takes in his status. The interrogator is cast as a hypocrite for fighting against one type of tyranny only to get into bed with another. The two characters are never named, standing as cyphers for the monoliths of their institutions, and as you would expect, the foundations of those monoliths are revealed to be more fragile than their representatives would wish.
The Prisoner fails in a number of ways. There is little sense of place, or of the passing of time; fairly major flaws when dealing with a prolonged period of internment, and its theatrical origins are very much evident. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting film unafraid of dealing with massive political ideas and elevated by two intense performances.