Despite starring Alec Guinness, being nominated for numerous BAFTAs, and being banned in several countries (as either being too pro-communist or too anti-communist depending on which way the country leaned), Peter Glenville’s 1965 film The Prisoner has mostly been forgotten today. With a new HD transfer and numerous extras, Arrow Academy makes a pretty good case on why we ought to start remembering it.
In an unnamed European country, the communist government wants to bring down the Church. They plan to do so by having a well-respected Cardinal (Alec Guinness) confess to treason which will cause the people to lose their faith. This particular Cardinal withstood torture from the Gestapo, which turned him into a folk hero and thus will make his fall even more disheartening.
A man known only as "The Interrogator" (Jack Hawkins) is given the task of making the Cardinal confess. Instead of physical torture, he plays the long game, slowly breaking down the Cardinal’s confidence hoping to undermine his faith in his own righteousness. They have long chats about his boyhood, growing up as a fishmonger’s son and his rise to prominence in the academic world before turning to the priesthood. At one point, he drugs the Cardinal’s mother and makes it looks like she’s dead to get inside his head. The Interrogator uses all that he learns later to confuse and turn against the Cardinal as his wits break down.
They leave the lights on in his cell all day and night; they feed him at odd hours and never let him sleep. Step by step, bit by bit, they wear the Cardinal down, breaking his defenses, destroying his spirit. At first, the Cardinal is strong, full of spirit and good cheer, but there is only so long anyone can hold up against such forces. There is only so long a man can endure putting anyone under those circumstances as well, and the long, arduous sessions prove trying to the Interrogator. Especially as the longer it takes, the more pressure he is under from the higher-ups demanding a confession sooner rather than later.
It is a battle of wits for the characters and a brilliant display of acting by the two leads. Guinness is, as always, brilliant. His character doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, but what he does say carries great weight, and his facial expressions mixed with body language tell the story of what he’s not saying. I’m not as familiar with Jack Hawkins’s work but he carries his own against Guinness. He’s cunning and sophisticated and while he is the villain of the story, his performance complicates that strict black and white role, making it much more grey and nuanced.
The revelations that come from the interrogations and subsequent trail aren’t as emotionally impactful as the film seems to be aiming for, and its conclusions feel a too tidy and not nearly as meaningful as one might hope. There is a subplot involving a young woman who believes in the Cardinal but who is dating one of the communist prison guards. It never really goes anywhere and should have been edited out completely. The film is based upon a stage play that also starred Guinness and was directed by Glenville. He doesn’t seem to have changed much bringing it to the screen and there is nothing showy in the direction. Filmed in stark black and white, Glenville makes good use of light and shadow, and finds interesting ways to frame his images, but mostly, he sits back and lets his actors display their brilliance.
Arrow presents the film in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and its master comes courtesy of Sony Home Pictures. It mostly looks good. Detail levels are high and the black and white photography looks really beautiful. However, it is clear that this film has not been truly restored as there are all sorts of age-related blemishes - small scratches, specks, and dirt - throughout the film. It is never overwhelming and none of it is too terrible, but it is ever present. Audio is good for what basically amounts to a film full of talking. The dialogue is always clear and I never had a hard time understanding it. Extras include 20-minute appreciation of the film by Neil Sinyard, audio commentary on four scenes from Phillip Kent, and the usual full-color booklets with an informative essay.
The Prisoner is a good film with some fine performances. Its message isn’t quite as meaningful as the film seems to think it is but it is well worth watching. With this release, Arrow Academy makes a good case that it ought to re-enter the cinematic consciousness and to be remembered once again.