‘The Prisoner’ (1955) — A Kafkaesque Film Just as Timely Today

A year after making The Prisoner, Alec Guinness converted to Catholicism.

‘The Prisoner’ movie poster
‘The Prisoner’ movie poster (photo: IMDB.com)

A gripping, Kafkaesque, confined drama set in a nameless state sometime after World War II, The Prisoner tells the tale of an esteemed cardinal (Alec Guinness) who at the beginning of the film is about to read the Postcommunion prayer of Mass when the master of ceremonies slips a note into the open Missal: “The police are here to arrest you.”

The film makes it quite clear from the start the state authorities have no actual crime with which to charge the cardinal, but they are adamant to get a confession from him. That’s the job of the interrogator (Jack Hawkins), who spends the next several months attempting to break the cardinal by sophisticated, psychological means. 

This relationship is at the center of The Prisoner, and is largely successful thanks to the excellent performances by Guinness and Hawkins. Alec Guinness, known mainly to later generations of filmgoers from Star Wars, shows the remarkable range that elevated him as one of the most respectable actors of his time. Following The Prisoner, both Guinness and Hawkins would appear in David Lean’s epics The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia.

The Prisoner is stylish but not flashy — inventive without calling attention to itself. It twists some of the expectations of the Orwellian nature of the story. For instance, the opening Mass scene shows a reverent, packed congregation. A reference in the film indicates religion under this oppressed regime is booming. Yet there is no lack of digs by characters against the Church, particularly by the prison guards, and aimed at the cardinal himself. 

Near the end of the film, the cardinal’s gaze meets the hardened eyes of a guard. The cardinal says to him, “Try not to judge the priesthood ... by a priest.” It is a key line for our own time: an encouragement not to turn away from the faith because of the sins of man.

The film also eerily evokes the real-life trial and imprisonment endured by another cardinal, Cardinal George Pell at the hands of the Australian courts, the saga of which has been published in two works by Pell thus far: Prison Journal, Volume 1: The Cardinal Makes His Appeal, and Prison Journal, Volume 2: The State Court Rejects the Appeal

The director of The Prisoner was Peter Glenville, in his directorial debut. The experience served as a dress rehearsal for Glenville who guided Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton nearly 10 years later in Becket. Bridget Boland wrote The Prisoner screenplay based on her play, which was performed in 1954 at the Globe Theatre in London, also with Guinness in the title role.

Just before working on The Prisoner, Alec Guinness completed filming The Detective. As with The Prisoner, Guinness played the title character of the detective — Father Brown to be exact, in an adaptation of G.K. Chesterton’s crime-solving priest. 

A year after The Prisoner, in 1956, Alec Guinness converted to Catholicism. He died in 2000 at the age of 86.

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