The Prisoner: “Guinness’s War of the Words”
For my money, Alec Guinness is one of the greatest British character actors of all time. No matter if he was playing the buck-toothed Professor Marcus in The Ladykillers, or the wise and mysterious Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, Guinness always brought elegance, wit, and charm to his performances. Rewind to 1955 with The Prisoner, and Guinness plays a tormented role worthy of being described as his darkest performance. He plays an unnamed cardinal who the totalitarian government label as an enemy of the state for committing treason. They send Guinness to prison where the Interrogator, played by Jack Hawkins, forces the Cardinal into making a public confession for his fictitious crimes.
And that’s how most of The Prisoner’s plot plays out; the film is a two-man battle between Hawkins’s restrained Interrogator and Guinness’s proud Cardinal. Method after method, Hawkins uses sleep deprivation, persistent questioning, and even starves the Cardinal to break him. But to no success, we learn that the Cardinal fought in World War II and sustained unspeakable torture under Nazi Germany, so no matter what the Interrogator throws at the Cardinal, Guinness will fire back. Watching the drama and chemistry between Hawkins and Guinness unfold is incredibly satisfying. The Prisoner’s director, Peter Glenville, frames the two actors in a war of the words until finally, the Interrogator calls the Cardinal a charlatan and a fake. The Interrogator believes that the Cardinal turned to religion not because he wanted to help people around him, but because he wanted an escape from his poverty-stricken childhood. To the Interrogator, the Cardinal is a façade.
Glenville bases the film version on a stage play by Bridget Boland. A lot of The Prisoner’s craft makes sense with Boland also penning the script too – the unnamed characters and locations, the theatricality of the dialogue, the use of one room for most of the film, nearly everything in The Prisoner screams theatre. And I don’t see this as a bad thing, Glenville uses sweeping camera techniques to enrichen the source material. For example, in the opening sequence where Guinness is delivering his last service before being wrongly imprisoned, Guinness nor anyone else attending utters a word. The camera glides across the church as hymns echoes across the chamber, Glenville establishes the Cardinal’s status in 5 on-screen minutes. Then, the Cardinal receives a note passed from person to person saying “you’re going to get arrested”, everything that the Cardinal worked hard for in life is about to crash down on him.
The Prisoner is a visually impressive film – it’s also well-acted by Hawkins and Guinness who deliver the dialogue with energy and confidence. The only thing that holds The Prisoner down is a sub-plot Boland includes about a strained romance between a guard at the prison (Roland Lewis) and a married woman (Jeanette Sterke). Why Boland and Glenville include this, I don’t know. I don’t see the need for it since the sub-plot breaks up the nerve-wracking tension in the first two thirds and then goes absolutely nowhere in the final act. It’s an odd inclusion, and The Prisoner could have been better without it.
The film is still an overlooked pressure cooking drama: it delivers as a rugged two-man battle with Guinness and Hawkins at each other’s throats. The only other thing I can add is The Prisoner never overstays it’s welcome. At 91 minutes, this is a well-made political and religious thriller of its type. The extras on the new Arrow Academy Blu-Ray has the ever trusting Neil Sinyard giving the history on the film’s production, and a selected scene commentary by Philip Kemp dissecting the film’s visual storytelling. I like Arrow Academy a lot; I think they are a great label in shedding the spotlight on rare films lost to the depths of time. The Prisoner is no exception. I recommend this for any fan of the late, great Alec Guinness.