Arrow Video: The Prisoner (1955) - Reviewed

Peter Glenville’s transposition of playwright Bridget Boland’s controversial stage theater hit The Prisoner to the silver screen represents a major yet curiously overlooked chapter in the checkered yet illustrious career of Sir Alec Guinness.  In an intensely personal role, Guinness plays a hard-nosed and seemingly indefatigable Cardinal in an unnamed fascist Eastern European country who finds himself under arrest on charges of treason.  Subjugated to a character only known as the Interrogator (Jack Hawkins) who is assigned to extract a confession from the unbending will of the Cardinal, the story takes on Orwellian proportions as the Interrogator proceeds to systematically chip away at the Cardinal’s psychologically defenses in search of his weaknesses.  

Like an extended version of the closing chapters of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Prisoner evolves into a tense, sustained study of one man’s ability to gradually erode away another man’s mental barriers before striking his soft spot like a scorpion.  Though the film tries to broaden the scope of the play with an unneeded thread involving a quasi-love affair between a young guard and a citizen, The Prisoner succeeds when it remains trained on the Interrogator’s dissection of the Cardinal’s deteriorating psyche under duress and mind games.  One standout sequence involves the Cardinal in solitary confinement with additional efforts made to disorient his sense of time and space as a prison guard brings the Cardinal his first meal in days before bringing him another just minutes after while claiming days elapsed since his last one. 

For Guinness, who was in the midst of converting to Catholicism and whose own past bore a striking resemblance to the Cardinal’s, this was a full swing at reshaping his once comedic image into a serious dramatic player.  Having played the role onstage numerous times under Glenville’s direction, it was only natural for the already notable screen actor to reprise the Cardinal on film.  Needless to say, fans of Guinness should put The Prisoner at the top of their viewing list as the actor gives his heart and soul to the character, presenting himself in a fragile light not seen before or since.  The film also represented a shift for the superb Jack Hawkins as the Kafkaian and bloodless Interrogator.  Hawkins ordinarily played good guys in the movies and seeing him as a cold and calculating adversary preying on the Cardinal’s insecurities is as startling as it is chilling.

Upon initial release, the film caused quite a stir with a wide variety of misinterpretations of the material.  In Ireland it was perceived as pro-Communist, while France’s prestigious Cannes Film Festival and the equally prestigious Venice Film Festival both banned it outright for perceptions of anti-Communism.  Oddly, some Italian critics even dubbed it anti-Catholic though God only knows how anyone watching could derive that idea.  Despite however wildly off the mark it was received in Eastern Europe, the film was nominated for five BAFTA Awards including Best Picture and Best Actor for both Guinness and Hawkins.  Further still the US based National Board of Review named The Prisoner winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Award. 

And yet for all the noise made about it both good and bad, The Prisoner is curiously overlooked with Guinness himself barely touching on it in his various autobiographies.  For such an important and critical role in the celebrated actor’s career, to be swept under the rug from sight for so long despite some of the loose ends mentioned earlier is unfortunate.  Both actors are fantastic in it with Guinness displaying a side of his personality I never thought I’d see.  That so much of the actor’s own true life experiences mirrored that of the Cardinal’s makes The Prisoner essential viewing for Guinness fans.  The film’s controversies may have died down with the tide of time and the subplot involving the young couple adds nothing, but the electricity generated onscreen by Guinness and Hawkins is unforgettable and remains as potent as ever!

- Andrew Kotwicki