The Prisoner is a British film from 1955 that has basically been forgotten over the years. That’s both understandable and unfair, because it has a lot to admire. It stars Alec Guinness, and is based on a play by Bridget Boland and directed by Peter Glenville. Glenville mainly directed on stage, and when he did make films, they were mostly adaptations from the stage, most notably Becket.
Guinness plays the prisoner of the title, a cardinal who is accused of treason by the state, which is some kind of Communist government although the country in which it is set is entirely unclear. He is interrogated by a former friend, played by Jack Hawkins. At some point the director thought Guinness could play both roles, which would’ve been a great idea, and something he had done before to great success. The majority of the film is the interrogator trying to break the cardinal and get him to confess to various accusations. There is a horrendous subplot about a guard that adds interest to the film.
It clearly has some Kafkaesque elements, with this seemingly innocent man being accused of crimes by a faceless authoritarian governing body. The first English translation of Frank Kafka’s novel The Trial was in 1937, so it was certainly in the playwright’s mind when she wrote the play. The idea of Guinness playing both roles would’ve certainly added a sense of surrealism to the proceedings but was mostly likely considered “too avant-garde” by the producers.
Glenville shoots it much like a play, but does have some visual flashes at times and that increases its cinematic qualities. Guinness is great, but when wasn’t he? The controversy over it is fascinating: in Ireland it was considered pro-Communist, but at the Cannes and Venice film festivals it was rejected, with the latter condemning the film as “so anti-Communist that it would be offensive to Communist countries.” Some Italians saw it as anti-Catholic as well, but the International Catholic Office of the Cinema gave the film an award, and the notable British cardinal Bernard Griffin approved of it. The fact that it annoyed so many people probably meant it was doing something right.
It’s not this great lost classic of British cinema some may claim, but The Prisoner has enough thought-provoking questions about faith and authoritarianism, and a brilliant performance from Alec Guinness, to make it worth seeking out. It’s relatively light on extras: the disc has a video appreciation by Neil Sinyard and a selected scenes commentary from Philip Kemp. The first pressing includes a booklet with an essay by Mark Cunliffe.