Release Date(s)1955 (March 12, 2019)
Studio(s)London Independent Producers/Facet Productions/Columbia Pictures (Arrow Academy)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B
Set in an unnamed Eastern European Communist country, The Prisoner opens with the arrest of a prominent cardinal (Alec Guinness, The Bridge on the River Kwai) for treason. His interrogator (Jack Hawkins, Lawrence of Arabia) is a person the cardinal knows very well. They fought together against the Nazis during World War II. Knowing the cardinal withstood physical torture under the Germans, the interrogator (the central characters are never named) decides to elicit a confession by breaking the man through psychological means.
The cardinal is imprisoned and for many months the interrogator appears to be getting nowhere. Persevering with this strategy despite constant pressure from his superiors for faster results, the interrogator eventually begins to make headway.
There is a negligible sub-plot about a romance between a married woman (Jeanette Sterke) and a prison guard (Ronald Lewis) that merely interrupts the main action and serves no real purpose.
The movie’s stage origins are clear, since it contains far more dialogue than a traditional film and is limited to a few sets. Only occasionally does director Peter Glenville venture outdoors, as in an elaborate processional early in the film, a few long shots of the prisoner exercising in the prison yard, and a brief climactic scene. Though there are other characters, the film is primarily a two-character duel of wits between prisoner and captor. We don’t learn until late in the movie what the nature of the cardinal’s treason is. The drama is a metaphor about the power of the human will versus the power of guilt.
Guinness portrays the cardinal as aloof and superior to the state that has challenged him. He is resolute in his determination to survive whatever is in store for him. Expecting physical torture and knowing he will not break because he withstood it once before, he is thrown by the interrogator’s soft-spoken, seemingly respectful approach. Yet there are elements of torture, particularly sleep deprivation. It’s difficult to sympathize with the cardinal because his manner suggests he thinks of himself as a messenger of God being inconvenienced by mere mortals.
Hawkins’ interrogator is an enigma. We understand that he and the cardinal served once as allies, but now the cardinal is regarded as an enemy of the state. It seems the interrogator is treading on eggshells in his dealings with an adversary that it’s his duty to break. Periodically, we see the interrogator’s superior, increasingly impatient for results yet placated by the interrogator’s assurance that his method takes time.
The screenplay by Bridget Boland, based on her play, is initially engaging as it sets up the one-on-one conflict and poses questions, but as the film progresses, it plods along with dialogue more theatrical than authentic. Made in 1955 at the height of the Cold War, The Prisoner paints a grim picture of an authoritarian state with no respect for personal liberty, freedom of expression, and political dissent. If the characters were less like representations and more like human beings, the film would connect better with audiences.
The High Definition black-and-white Blu-ray release features 1080p resolution. Visual quality is good but not the usual high quality expected of Blu-ray. There are occasional dirt specks and a few scratches. Details that should be distinct are blurry, such as bricks in the prison, facial details, and uniforms. Outdoor scenes are dull grey to create atmosphere. Superimpositions are used in a montage to show passage of time. Aspect ratio is 1.85:1.
The soundtrack is lossless English mono 1.0. Optional English subtitles are provided for the deaf and hard of hearing. Dialogue, which dominates the film, is clear and distinct. A virtual absence of ambient noise gives the film an antiseptic sound. It’s as if no world exists beyond the confines of the prison, possibly a conscious choice of director Glenville and the sound crew.
Bonus materials on the Blu-ray release include a new video appreciation of The Prisoner, select scene commentary, reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork, and a booklet.
Interrogating Guinness – Neil Sinyard provides an overview of The Prisoner. It was nominated for 5 British Academy Awards and voted Best Foreign Film by the National Board of Review. It was banned by the Legion of Decency for being anti-Catholic and banned by the Cannes Film Festival for being “politically dangerous.” The film is based on a 1954 play, and many from the original cast were used in the film. Alec Guinness was once slated to play both the cardinal and the interrogator in a dual role, but the idea was abandoned when it was thought too avant garde. Jack Hawkins, one of the biggest screen stars of the period, was cast as the interrogator because producers wanted a big name. Guinness and Hawkins became friends and Hawkins helped persuade Guinness to take the role of Col. Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai. The Prisoner was the first movie directed by Peter Glenville. Writer Bridget Boland was educated at Oxford in the 30s and worked for British Intelligence in the 40s. A theme running through all of her works is “belief is dangerous,” both to the believer and to those it threatens. The movie is based on the trial in 1948 of Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty of Hungary, who was charged with treason, tortured, and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Select Scene Commentary – Author and critic Philip Kemp analyses 4 key scenes from The Prisoner.
Opening – In this 5-minute scene without dialogue, the cardinal’s status is established. Director Peter Glenville uses a series of cinematic elements to convey information. He had to abandon the way he directed the stage play and rethink scenes from the point of view of a camera.
Montage – This sequence sets up the key visual element of circles as shown in the spiral staircase, the bowl and water flask on the interrogator’s desk, tape reels, and the oppressive overhead light.
Breakthrough – In this key scene, the interrogator finally wears down the cardinal’s resistance. Glenville uses long unbroken takes as the interrogator “comes in for the kill.” An overview of Guinness’ early troubled life is provided. The Prisoner marks the second time on screen that Guinness played a Catholic cleric. The word “communism” is never mentioned in the movie, though the setting is a country under an autocratic regime.
Supporting Cast – Though the film is essentially a two-person drama, Kemp discusses the supporting players: Kenneth Griffith (the Secretary), Raymond Huntley (the General), Gerard Heinz (the Doctor), and Wilfrid Lawson (the Jailer). Lawson’s performance is singled out for “tempering bluff callousness with geniality.”
Booklet – The 24-page booklet contains cast and crew listing, the essay The Prisoner: The Inside Story by Mark Cunliffe, information about the transfer, and several production photos from the film.
– Dennis Seuling