Peter Glenville’s “The Prisoner” was controversial when it was initially release and still today it remains a complex, challenging and multifaceted exploration of faith and power. It was banned from the Cannes and Venice Films Festivals for being anti-Communist and considered damaging elsewhere as pro-Soviet propaganda.
In an unnamed Eastern European capital, an iron-willed Cardinal (Alec Guinness) is arrested by state police on charges of treason. The police had the job of securing a confession from him by any means necessary. A former comrade-in-arms from the anti-Nazi resistance (Jack Hawkins) was to conduct the interrogation. He knew that the Cardinal will never yield under physical torture so the Interrogator instead sets out to destroy him mentally by breaking his spirit rather than his body.
“The Prisoner” is a tense, thought-provoking and disturbing drama about the endurance of the human spirit. It takes the potentially intriguing and electrifying subject of a cardinal being forced to endure months of harsh interrogation and adds over-the-top performances.
The Cardinal and the interrogator fought against the Nazis in the Second World War. Now attempts to break the cardinal are poorly received and as the months pass, the interrogator begins utilizing various methods and begins to make an impact. The film occasionally cuts to a romance between a guard (Ronald Lewis) and a married woman (Jeanette Sterke) but this subplot is quickly abandoned.
The movie rarely leaves the confines of the interrogation room. This could’ve been a fascinating look at the interplay between two very different men but the screenplay uses the most stilted dialogue imaginable. These characters are never allowed the chance to develop through their words and every line spoken sounds too thought out and rehearsed and unfortunately this takes away the natural element to the character’s speech/ there’s absolutely nothing natural about the things these characters are saying.
We, in the audience, remain in the dark about what the cardinal’s been arrested for. A lot of time is spent trying to convince him to confess to something treason related, but by the time we finally find out what he’s been charged with (in the last 25 minutes), it’s impossible to care. Oscar winner Alec Guinness gives a performance that’s more perfunctory and this prevents the audience from sympathizing with him. There’s a certain amount of distance that’s required when playing a character of this sort, but Guinness never convinces us he’s playing an actual person instead of a holier-than-thou figure. Hawkins is fine as the interrogator, though it’s not made entirely clear why he feels such loyalty towards the cardinal. They served together but his reluctance to really hit the man with all he’s got feels strange (they are supposed to be enemies, after all).
This is a heavy drama pitting a heroic religious figure against Iron Curtain totalitarianism. This intimate but minor drama is at best an interesting character study but it could have been so much more. Most of the film depicts the cardinal’s losing battle and his gradual breakdown, despite his great intelligence and enormous will, and the interrogator’s subtle skill.
Director Peter Glenville and cinematographer Reginald H. Wyer provides an array of striking, austere camera work outside the two-character scenes, while the interrogations understandably focus on the two lead performances. The church sequence that opens the film is excellent, with Guinness carefully passed a note warning him of his imminent arrest. There is a lack of universality and timelessness (and timeliness) that it aims for. clearly shooting for. The film is a testament to Alec Guinness’s enormous range.
SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS:
High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
Original lossless mono audio
Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
Interrogating Guinness, a new video appreciation of the film by author and academic Neil Sinyard
Select scene commentary by author and critic Philip Kemp
Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Peter Strain
FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Mark Cunliffe