The Prisoner (1955)

The Prisoner (1955)
  • Time: 95 min
  • Genre: Drama
  • Director: Peter Glenville
  • Cast: Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Marc Dignam


A cardinal is arrested for treason against the state. As a prince of his church, and a popular hero of this people, for his resistance against the Nazis during the war and afterward his resistance when his country again fell to a totalitarian conquerer. In prison, his interrogator is determined to get a confession of guilt against the state from the strong willed man, and thus destroy his power over his people. The verbal and psychological battles are gripping and powerful – not even the increasing pressures put upon the Cardinal can force him to weaken; not even solitary confinement, continuous blazing light in his cell, sleeplessness, efforts to persuade him he is going mad. And yet, in the deepening conflict, the superb indomitable prisoner, creates a tremendous pity on his tormentor, the interrogator.

One comment

  • The Prisoner 1955
    I’m looking for an ‘istorical context for this film:-
    Alec Guinness plays a cardinal and religion in this regime is regarded as a threat. He is being manoeuvred into the role of patsy for his church, so enabling the state to disempower a rebellious population. Scapegoated by an interrogator of Stasi-like greyness and infinite psychological resource, Alec Guinness’ protective robes of office are slowly unwound – their authoritarian scaffold disassembled, one steely pipe at a time.
    Fairer to call this interrogator an inquisitor – no-one ever expects the Paranoid Inquisition… But no black robes for him – he is Jack London – a ‘chisel-jawed’ frowning beast of a man, better-looking in baggy suits than hiding behind insignia and artifice.
    This film tells the story of the Cardinal’s interrogation. In close-up detail, the cardinal’s equilibrium and self-assurance are picked apart. His relationship with the inquisitor begins well enough – at the point of understanding that each has his duty: The Cardinal’s to preserve his office; the inquisitor’s to break and scatter the cardinal’s integrity across the cobbles of what looks like a faux post-war East German city.
    Over 9 months, the inquisitor and the cardinal slowly entwine in a mutually destructive dance of self-loathing.

    Another character dips into the story – representing the bureaucratic framework on which the inquisition proceeds: This subaltern is in awe of, but has less humanity than, his boss.
    They have opposite roles within the establishment: The inquisitor has to feel he has used all his psychological skills to beat the cardinal. He doesn’t just want to break the Cardinal’s will – he wants to break his very purpose.
    His subaltern meanwhile creates false evidence. He fills syringes with pentobarbital and sneers.
    Then there is the Cardinal’s mother. We learn about a mother/son relationship in hard and realistic terms and begin to understand why the Cardinal is becoming unstuck.

    Freud is all about your past: When you were a child, you were plastic and you took up the shape of your environment. Then the plasticity hardened and the memory of your parent’s imprint remained etched into you.
    When you were no longer a child, you were given fewer choices – and what choices you were given were far from ideal – Choices unconsciously selected for you by those parental etchings – few of us can invent a personality devoid of youthful influence.

    This is a film made in the 1950s. It was in this decade when the ‘ideal American’ was invented. Using Freudian theory, American families and individuals were watched and observed. They received therapy and were guided toward social compliance.
    The American films of this time were science fiction – The Thing, The War of the Worlds, The Fly. Their film-makers were writing about fear of the atom bomb, fear of the future.
    Here in the UK, the population were still war weary, and couldn’t begin to dream of a Freudian utopia. Stories were darker. More polluted with muddy memories, war and foreign paranoia. Films in the UK were about fear of the past: Divergent governments, tyrants in jack-boots, and deviant oligarchs with big moustaches.

    In this film. there is no comfortable discussion of the Stockholm Syndrome – two adversaries coming together in shared reliance (not that the Syndrome had been described when this film was made). Moreover- they begin the story respected, and respecting each other. They end with loneliness and shame. One hating himself, the other knowing he is hated.

    The Prisoner is a great film. It reminds me of The Trial by Kafka. The Third Man by Carol Read. Don Quixote.
    These are about loneliness: The loneliness of high office. Made more un-nerving because of that office’s precarious foundations.
    And The Prisoner is about the loneliness of the man given the duty to demolish that which actually represents the only thing he believes in – humanity.
    The film has a dark and monochrome stillness. I feel I am in the cell next to the cardinal. Outside, in the streets, revolutionaries are yelling and throwing bricks at authority. I feel safe in my cell – safe from the chaos. Safe from choices. Here there are rules and protocols. They have a handbook with operator guidance:-
    I am being interrogated alongside the Cardinal – we are sitting back to back. I feel every drop of sweat running down his face. I feel the ears in the walls and see every piece of the inquisitor’s twisting logic as a trap. My own skills and clarity are their own purpose.
    This film makes me feel part of a democratic and reasonable machine – fair’s fair.
    This is why The Prisoner is good. It is honest. It tells you its premise at the beginning, and then shows you one way that it may run out.
    The film makes no judgements of the Cardinal or the inquisitor. In fact, they become increasingly human as their weaknesses are revealed. Unlike the subaltern whose enigmatic role makes us question why so heartless?

    Which is pretty much what Freud was teaching:
    Find the child, discover the man.

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