Sony // 1955 // 91 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Treadway (Retired) // July 16th, 2004
A man of faith. A nation in fear.
The current controversy involving the court-martial of U.S. Colonel Allan West over intense techniques used to get information from a suspected Al Qaeda militant sparked debate. How much force is too much, just to get information? Is it right if it's used in order to protect our country from further attack? The 2003 DVD release of Peter Glenville's 1955 British drama The Prisoner could not be timelier. It is useful for encouraging debate, which is often discouraged these days.
Glenville's film, from a script by Bridget Boland, has no specific time period, although we figure out through subtle clues that it is probably set during the Second World War. The Prisoner takes place in an unidentified country somewhere in the Iron Curtain. The Cardinal (Alec Guinness, Lawrence of Arabia) is arrested on suspicion of being a traitorous spy. The Interrogator (Jack Hawkins, Zulu) decides to use drastic methods to force a confession out of the Cardinal. Things do not go according to his plan, however, as the Cardinal remains cool even under torture. Will the Interrogator continue to apply the heat to gain his prized confession? Or will his sympathy and decency derail his plans?
Let me start by stating that The Prisoner is a four-star film. It is a masterpiece of tension and subtlety that could not be made today. It is a shame that Columbia has saddled such an important film with one of the worst discs to date, but more on that later. Let's talk about the film. Despite the lean running time of 91 minutes, this is a deliberately paced picture. The slower pace is important: It leaves us lingering in suspense, just like the Cardinal, as to what his fate will be. Glenville doesn't fill his film with flashy visuals. He simply points the camera and shoots with simplicity and realism. To load the film with neat camera moves and quick cuts would be to defeat the mood and tension Glenville so brilliantly elicits. He would hone his technique with another masterpiece, The Comedians, 12 years later.
The two lead performances are perfect. I cannot imagine two better actors in these roles. Alec Guinness was the premier British actor of the '50s. The fact that his work in The Prisoner came the same year as his wonderful comic performance in The Ladykillers shows the versatility and chameleonlike quality that marked his career. Jack Hawkins matches Guinness scene for scene as the Interrogator, a proud man who is willing to go to any lengths to get what he wants. What makes Hawkins's performance stand out is that he doesn't just portray his character as the determined, vengeful caricature Hollywood prefers. He gives the Interrogator human qualities such as sympathy and decency. We do not hate him, even though he may be going too far in his attempt to break the Cardinal.
Columbia's DVD presentation of The Prisoner leaves a lot to be desired. While I am grateful to have the film in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, the image is pretty poor. Grain blankets the image like fog on a misty morning. Scratches and specks galore appear at the most inopportune times. The softness of the image seems too heavy-handed. I do not know how The Prisoner looked when it premiered in 1955, but I'm willing to bet it looked far better than this.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track is also a disappointment. The sound is often flat and tinny. Dialogue becomes a muddle, which is the kiss of death for a dialogue-driven film such as The Prisoner. The score seems undermixed at various points in the film.
As is the case with most Columbia discs, the extra content consists solely of theatrical trailers. As with previous releases, the studio fails to offer us the trailer for our film, even though I'm convinced the theatrical trailer for The Prisoner will appear on another release. What we do have are theatrical trailers for The Bridge on the River Kwai, Damn the Defiant!, and Gandhi, among other films. The first two are natural choices, since Hawkins and Guinness appear in those pictures, but Gandhi?
As if a poor transfer wasn't enough, Columbia further pours salt in the wound by charging $24.95 for The Prisoner. This is a joke that is no longer funny. Maybe if the studio had offered the disc at a bargain price I'd lean toward recommending it. As it is, $24.95 is far too much money for such a poor disc. Rent the film on DVD or VHS to see one of the great films of 1955, but be warned that this disc is a travesty.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 91 Minutes
Release Year: 1955
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Theatrical Trailers