Wednesday, February 15, 2023

You are not Number Six

Another of the box sets that I picked up some time back was an set of "war movies" released by Columbia. One of them isn't really a war movie, but it's a movie that really deserves more attention: The Prisoner.

In an unnamed eastern European country sometime after the end of World War II and the Communist takeovers in those countries, an unnamed Roman Catholic cardinal (Alec Guinness) is presiding over Mass. The Communists were officially atheist, although the extent to which various Communist countries suppressed organized religion varied from country to country. It's fairly obvious why the Communists would see the Roman church as a threat, and sure enough, the Communists in this country see the Cardinal as a threat. So after Mass, the Cardinal is arrested.

Now, the government could simply put the Cardinal in prison on trumped-up charges and let him languish there. That, however, presented a substantial political problem. The Catholic church still had a substantial following, and imprisoning the Cardinal would turn him into a cause célèbre at best, or a martyr at worst. This would be even more the case if the government summarily executed the Cardinal on whatever charges. No; the government realizes that they need a show trial in which the Cardinal can be forced to "confess" his "sins" against the state, much like the Costa-Gavras movie The Confession that I blogged about some time back. Now, in that movie, the defendants were all already devoted communists who couldn't understand why they had been put on trial, so it was easier for the state to get the confessions they wanted. With a devout Catholic like the Cardinal, that's going to be much more difficult.

To that end, the government brings in an unnamed Interrogator (Jack Cardiff), a devout communist who can probe the Cardinal's mind and figure out what to use as a wedge to crack it open and get that confession. The Cardinal and the Interrogator also have a past together, having jointly been part of the resistance against the Nazis during the war, although they didn't always resist in the same way. The Cardinal had even been tortured by the Nazis, which is why the government knows they can't simply torture a confession out of the Cardinal. The Interrogator knows all of this, and has to come up with more subtle measures. And, he's a pretty darn smart man himself, so he has a bunch of tricks of his own up his sleeve.

In between all of the verbal sparring between the Cardinal and the Interrogator, the Cardinal is sent back to his prison cell, where he's attended to by a Jailer (Wilfrid Lawson), whose plot purpose is more to be somebody neutral and release the tension of the plot. (I have a feeling that in real life, the government would have used a jailer who was more or less spying on the Cardinal, much like in the US Army's World War II training film Resisting Enemy Interrogation.)

That's pretty much all there is to the plot of The Prisoner, as the movie is as much a character study of the two main characters (and especially the Cardinal) as it is a traditionally-plotted movie. And if The Prisoner has one weakness, it's in that scanty plot. It feels a lot like a plot that starts somewhere a bit past the beginning, and ends somewhere before the end. The characters know each other and know what was going on before the events of the movie, but we don't.

The movie also requires a bit of knowledge of history above and beyond what I mentioned about the anti-clerical nature of the eastern European regimes. It's based on a play (if you couldn't tell from the relatively small number of sets) that was loosely based on real events. The Cardinal is most likely based on Hungarian Jószef Cardinal Mindszenty. He was arrested in 1948 after the Communist takeover of Hungary; at the time of the play and movie he was languishing in prison. He would be released in the abortive revolution of 1956, but after the Soviets invaded Mindszenty was forced to take refuge in the US embassy in Budapest, where he'd spend the next 15 years. European audiences of the 1950s probably would have recognized Mindszenty as a human rights prisoner; modern-day audiences, especially an ocean away, perhaps not so much.

However, the plot we do have works, and the performances are outstanding. I don't think anybody should be surprised by Guinness' performance. But those who don't know Jack Hawkins, since he isn't as well remembered by people who aren't film buffs, might not realize just how good an actor he could be. And The Prisoner is one of his best roles.

If you want a thoughtful movie with good acting, The Prisoner is one I can recommend in spades.

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