Director: Peter Glenville / Screenplay: Bridget Boland / Editing: Frederick Wilson / DP: Reginald Wyer / Music: Benjamin Frankel
Cast: Alec Guinness / Jack Hawkins / Wilfred Lawson / Kenneth Griffith / Jeanette Sterke / Ronald Lewis / Raymond Huntley
He Who Laughs Last…
I have a strong suspicion that, if I were to hold a straw poll asking for three performances from Alec Guinness, the answers would mostly fall between sage-like Ben Kenobi from Star Wars Ep. IV, the uptight, prissy Colonel in Bridge on the River Kwai and a toss-up between an Ealing comedy (say, Kind Hearts and Coronets) and George Smiley in the BBC’s majestic Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
Beyond this obvious bunch of titles, I think a general audience in 2019 is going to struggle. His support in Lawrence of Arabia, perhaps? Or that other, oft-overlooked David Lean picture from the Sixties, Doctor Zhivago? Yet along the way, Guinness ended-up making several ‘minor’ pictures, that explored deep, Important Themes; pictures that might’ve done relatively little business, but which encouraged their casts to reach for artistic goals that more mainstream fare would likely shrink from. The Prisoner, from 1955, is one-such and is presented here, courtesy of Arrow Academy.
Written originally for the stage by Bridget Boland, a writer seen as a natural author of screenplays (i.e. Gaslight, 1940), it was Boland herself who adapted ‘Prisoner for film; the project carrying-over both the stage production’s Director Peter Glenville (this would be his film directing debut) and two of its stars, Guinness and Wilfred Lawson. The third major character actor wasn’t re-cast, leaving Producers to go for that other stalwart of post-war British cinema, Jack Hawkins.
The stage is set then (oh, the irony) for The Prisoner to unfold and, well, make no mistake, for no matter the tricks deployed by Director Glenville (including having his camera shoot into sets from the ceiling, or have an interrogation room filled with pillars large enough to hide players behind) this remains an adaptation of a stage production, with all the limitations that implies. Scenes are static; Glenville’s camera rarely moves, other than to offer-up close-ups and dialogue is often heavy-going, peppered-with long monologues from Guinness, just to slow things down even more. I’m not complaining – much – but it just goes to show how much our cinema has changed over the years, with contemporary films offering cuts every few seconds and dialogue reduced to sound-bites, in-comparison to such material as this.
We begin with a Catholic Cardinal (Guinness) in an unidentified country, somewhere in MittelEuropa. He’s performing the liturgy to a packed congregation of the faithful. All-but-one, kneel in due-reverence; this conspicuous hold-out has his back to-camera, though it couldn’t be anyone else but Hawkins. The Cardinal’s assistants pass him a note, warning that police have come to arrest him… Which they do, as the Cardinal, his service now over, walks into the Sacristy; the ante-room in which the clergy prepare for services. The police close the heavy doors behind him, cutting-off a following train of choristers, as if severing an umbilical cord to what passes for normality: a potent image, that.
He’s charged with ‘Treason Against the State’ and soon enough, we see him delivered to a grim prison in the city, that reminds me of Moscow’s notorious KGB-run ‘Lubyanka’; watch The Death of Stalin (2017) and you’ll get an idea of the terror once emanating from the place. Still wearing his ceremonial robes, he’s divested of personal items by The Jailer (Lawson, in a tricksy, though sympathetic part) and watched all the while by The Guard (Ronald Lewis) who, at this stage, is content to play his harmonica and observe proceedings. Formalities over, the Cardinal (or should I say ‘Prisoner’ from this point-on) is ushered into an interesting room, comprising the aforementioned pillars and mirrored panelling, with a featured-mosaic in the floor, depicting points of the compass. This is the ‘office’ of The Interrogator (Hawkins); a man who’s clearly known the Prisoner since they fought alongside each other in ‘the war’ against ‘the Gestapo’.
Yet the end of one war merely signalled the ‘Resistance’ to turn ‘Revolutionary’ and usher-in a new authoritarian regime, even more oppressive than that of the Nazi occupiers. The Interrogator shares his simple instruction, issued from above (unlike that of the Prisoner, his superior is all-too human). It’s clear enough. He’s to deface the ‘National Monument’ of this Prisoner and what he represents: nationwide sentiment & belief in something intangible; something beyond The Party’s grasp. The country’s new rulers believe it can no longer tolerate a division between Church and State. Therefore, in getting the Prisoner to ‘confess’ to numerous, petty (though cumulatively-damning) ‘crimes’, The Party can undermine his moral authority and thus assert its own.
Not that it’ll be easy, as this exchange makes clear:
Prisoner: I am tolerably inured to physical pain.
Interrogator: Well, they never caught me.
Prisoner: Look, your masters are in a hurry, I fancy. People who are going to make Heaven on Earth usually are, so hadn’t we better come to the point?
Interrogator: Stephen? Bring me the completed confession, would you?
Interrogator: It’ll give us an agenda to work from.
From here, the Prisoner’s led to his cell (a Medieval-looking dungeon in-contrast to the opulence upstairs) and ‘over the next three months’, the film splits its time between the following: First, watching Guinness inexorably lose his grasp on sanity, thanks to an extended spell in solitary confinement (an opportunity for him to explore his considerable range as a charismatic actor). Second, we have the Interrogator come to view his Secretary (a sycophantic Kenneth Griffith) as someone dangerously passionate about his job, as well as fobbing-off The General – his own superior, played by Raymond Huntley; an ‘apparatchik’ impatient for results. Third and last, a minor sub-plot sees The Guard enjoy a passionless relationship with The Girl (Jeanette Sterk); a character who’s husband has escaped the country, sending no word as to his new circumstances; though never seen, let’s call him The Cad.
Boland’s screenplay builds on the cat-and-mouse premise. The Interrogator accepts that neither drugs nor physical torture will yield a confession here. Instead, he knows that only the passage of time, will unlock this Prisoner; time and another key as-yet-unknown. After months in solitary, the Prisoner does indeed break-down, agreeing to a laundry list of ludicrous charges; his will apparently broken, along with whatever faith he ever had to begin with. It appears the Prisoner was a man who pursued Faith as more than a calling, but as a route by which he could reinvent himself; a solid path he could cling-to, as a way of masking a deep shame felt for his own mother’s shortcomings & erratic morals. This, incidentally, cut a little too deep for Guinness, as it linked tangentially to his own haphazard upbringing; across Guinness’ three volumes of autobiography, this film warrants a single aside, referring to a visit to Bruges to shoot exterior scenes.
This confession, in the end freely given, enrages the Interrogator. As-played by Hawkins, I get the sense of a man who, once upon a time, might also have been a man of faith – at least belief – but one long-since scoured-away by both war & revolution. So for him, to hear the Prisoner – this National figurehead – reveal that he joined the priesthood, not through a genuine calling but from considered ambition, is all too much. He calls out the Prisoner for what he is: a FAKE of a man and, now laid bare, the Prisoner doesn’t correct him. The Interrogator’s done his job too well… A show-trial is hastily arranged (with, one imagines, more persuasive evidence than the shoddy facsimiles prepared earlier). With the inevitable verdict handed-down, the prisoner awaits his doom: but Fate has one last trick to play…
The picture ends on an optimistic note; Boland perhaps realising that the real-life inspiration for her piece (a martyr’d Cardinal in post-war Hungary) had been physically abused by his own jailers to elicit confession; a savage outcome that wouldn’t play in 1955, maybe not even today. Instead, The Prisoner is a heartfelt two-hander, grappling with weighty issues beyond the scope of its setting.
Parts of Central & Eastern Europe had, by the mid-Fifties, largely been occupied by the USSR and turned into a gaggle of compliant vassal-states. Underpinning Boland’s intention for the work, was the notion that ‘Belief is Dangerous’; that Totalitarianism only worked, in the absence of competing ideologies & thoughts. The Prisoner took the Catholic (read: Orthodox) Church within the Soviet Bloc as its obvious target, but it didn’t stop there, for Glenville’s film expands to include the banning of independent newspapers, the arrest of journalists and even the shooting-in-cold-blood of a graffiti artist, writing a slogan calling for ‘Free Speech’.
As recently as 2016, I would’ve watched the film and questioned Arrow’s rationale in re-releasing it. Its limitations as a ‘feature-film’ are clear (by no means is it cinematic) and I would probably have ended-up dismissing it as a curio; of interest to Guinness completists and few others. True, it was banned in a few countries on-release for being anti-establishment or anti-church and, yes, it was banned from the Cannes Festival for being, err, provocative? But now? Mere talking points.
But in 2019 and the era of Donald Trump? A U.S. President showing an alarming disregard for ‘the truth’, let alone the concept of a ‘Free Press’ and the right to self-expression? Some might see it as a canary in the coal-mine; an essential reminder of just what it is that we have to lose.
And how easy it is to lose it…
Nothing you can say can harm the Government. Dead, you might be a martyr. Imprisoned, you’d be an enigma, but free..?