The Mind Benders (1963) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

Dirk Bogarde is the troubled scientist at the centre of this suspense drama combining espionage, brainwashing, sensory deprivation chambers and domestic navel gazing that often feels like a rich inverted pudding, light on the bottom and heavy on top. This was the last of a series of issue driven films from the team of director Basil Dearden and producer Michael Relph’ whose previous hot button topics included racism (Sapphire in 1959; All Night Long, 1962), medical ethics and religious freedom (Life for Ruth, 1962), juvenile delinquency (Violent Playground, reviewed here) and the UK’s homosexuality laws (Victim, 1961), often using thriller conventions to make them more palatable for mainstream audiences.

The following review (updated from a previous post) is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been selected.

“With the press of a button they perverted a man’s mind”

At a glance here is a chronological list of the cycle of Dearden/Relph films that dealt with ‘important’ themes, with box office star Dirk Bogarde topping and tailing it:

  • Frieda (1947) – prejudice is stirred up when an RAF man returns with his new bride, a German woman.
  • The Blue Lamp (1950) – a young criminal (Dirk Bogarde) in London ultimately shoots and kills kindly policeman George Dixon (played, of course, by Jack Warner)
  • I Believe in You (1952) – the work of parole officersVictim-1961-poster
  • The Gentle Gunman (1952) – an IRA man in London questions his views
  • Violent Playground (1958) – Juvenile delinquents in Liverpool graduate to murder
  • Sapphire (1959) – story of racial hatred in London
  • Victim (1961) – blackmail story about homosexuality, then still illegal in the UK, again starring Dirk Bogarde
  • All Night Long (1962) – another racial drama, updating Othello for the jazz age
  • Life for Ruth (1962) – drama about medical ethics and religious tolerance when a pair of Jehovah’s witnesses refuse a blood transfusion for their sick child
  • A Place to Go (1963) – a London family gets caught up in  robbery in an attempt to get out of the poverty trap
  • The Mind Benders (1963) – mental conditioning and the limits of scientific experimentation, with Bogarde once again taking the lead.

Bogarde in the 1950s was one of Britain’s biggest box office draws but by the following decade, largely in partnership with Joseph Losey and several Continental filmmakers, he was making the transition to more character-based parts, bringing an overall earnestness to his choices, and his performances it has to be said, that leaves one in no doubt of its seriousness of intent though he also continued to appear in less challenging and more commercial fare throughout the decade, in part finishing off his contractual commitments to the Rank organisation.

The-Mind-Bender-Bogarde-Ure

Bogarde and Mary Ure are a married couple living in Oxford. He is a research scientist contacted by the British Security services – in the shape of John Clements – when an ex-colleague kills himself. He was working on sensory deprivation and brainwashing experiments but there are concerns that he may in fact have been selling secrets to the enemy. In an effort to understand what the man was going through, Bogarde agrees to undergo the experiments himself – the result sees a massive change in his personality, which affects the delicate balance of his relationship with his pregnant wife. Clements is the conventional detective of the story, investigating the background of the dead scientist by looking at his previous research for clues to his conduct and any possible enemy contacts that he may have made. Bogarde becomes the guinea pig in what mutates into a kind of Frankenstein cautionary tale on the perils of going too far with scientific experimentation. Compared with the earlier Dearden and Relph productions, one can discern a greater degree of effort in streamlining this story to fit a more commercial genre template. The intrigue in James Kennaway’s screenplay in the form of a mild spy plot about a possible traitor is mainly subordinated to the sexier topical subject of mental conditioning. While that seems a bit old hat now the film does still offer much fascinating sociological detail with the emphasis on the minutiae of every day life as shot on real locations in Oxford. This tends to be slightly undermined by a determination to seem a bit ‘daring’ by exploiting the era’s burgeoning new frankness in its depiction of sexual matters and language, which admittedly impresses more for the involvement of former matinée idol Dirk Bogarde capitalising on the critical success of Victim.

Bogarde_Bryant_Mind_Benders

Is the finished film any good though? One has to say that it very quickly it becomes apparent that this is going to be a fairly unsatisfying melange of half-baked elements – the spy plot proves barely relevant while technically the film comes across as somewhat slapdash with several mismatched day/night sequences, as well as several clumsily edited shots. In addition it takes about an hour to decide what sort of film it wants to be. Once it gets past the spy movie opening, it eventually settles for something akin to Ken Russel’s Altered States (1980) in its focus on sensory deprivation chambers as something that can truly alter a person’s personality and ability to feel empathy. Dearden and Relph seem to have been watching a lot of Continental films (a lot of Louis Malle one suspects) but the one obvious concession to that, the music score by George Auric, turns out to be horribly banal and overbearing. The artier narrative strategies, while intriguing, are unfortunately handled incredibly clumsily. For instance, a long introductory documentary, which conveniently sets up the plot, is a horrible example of a faux factual film which, despite being seemingly shot in real-time, has the film edited for shot and reverse shot as if multiple cameras were used, while every necessary plot point is magically recorded on film – in other words it’s a narrated flashback masquerading as a documentary. The final effect of this sequence is fascinating but totally inept and unconvincing, especially when the documentary camera tracks in before something dramatic is actually said. In addition, adding to the somewhat uncertain tone, voice over is briefly introduced at the halfway mark because they can’t find another way to get over some plot data – and then promptly forgotten as a device for the remainder.

Mond_Benders_Bogarde

On the other hand, the film is often superbly lit by Denys Coop in black and white, making good use of the restrained 1.66:1 aspect ratio mainly associated with the look of European art cinema of the day. There is some notable underwater cinematography which matches well with a generally expressionistic style that suits what will turn out to be a very tall tale indeed – one in fact that feels more like a fairy tale than the topical psychological suspense thriller it ostensibly looks like. It also offers several sterling performances, most notably from Bogarde and his ambivalent friend played by Michael Bryant; Clements is nice and sturdy and dependable as you’d expect, while Ure gets a bit of a raw deal as the wife. She is all intuition and infused knowledge and utterly unreal, not least in the climax which has her giving birth on-screen to her fifth child on a houseboat, with Dirk doing the delivering, another example of the film trying to push the boundaries of what could be depicted onscreen at the time (all very tame today of course). All this just moments after Bogarde’s previously unhinged prof just tried to cheat on his wife for the umpteenth time (this time with a young Wendy Craig). Which is to say that this is not really a role you can play so much as survive … if you are lucky. Ure, always good at either ethereal or put-upon ladies, does as well as can be expected given that the part requiring both attributes.

Ure_Bogarde_Mind_Benders

And yet … the topic is in fact a fascinating one, the performance are mostly very effective and several sequences do in fact work very well in isolation (sic). So it is a real shame that it is so deadly earnest all the time – one feels that it might have been better if the filmmakers had watched John Frankenheimer’s delirious original adaptation of Richard Condon’s brainwashing thriller The Manchurian Candidate (1962) rather (perhaps) than the likes of Malle’s beautiful but fundamentally humourless romantic flight of fancy Les Amants (1959) for inspiration, if nothing else to see how you can use a little humour to spatchcock so many disparate elements together and still come up trumps. The po-faced trailer (the face in question belonging to Edgar Lustgarten) tries very hard to see it as a controversial thriller and gives you some idea of the mindset of those making the films. A more entertaining online mashup/tribute to the movie can be found here.

Ultimately The Mind Benders is a very peculiar movie, neither fish nor fowl, but not a failure despite its conflicting intentions either – it is a film that is well worth catching up with and is well out of the norm. In many ways it might also make for rather a good double bill with Dearden’s last movie, the ambiguous story of the paranormal, The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970), also about an outwardly ‘normal’ man whose life starts to fall apart when he suddenly starts behaving strangely following medical intervention. Both are available on very decently transferred DVDs.

The Mind Benders (1963)
Director: Basil Dearden
Producer: Michael Relph
Screenplay: James Kennaway
Cinematography: Denys Coop
Art Direction: Jim Morahan
Music: George Auric
Cast: Dirk Bogarde, Mary Ure, John Clements, Wendy Craig, Michael Bryant, Norman Bird, Geoffrey Keen

***** (2 fedora tips out of 5)

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This entry was posted in Basil Dearden, Cold War, DVD Review, Espionage, Oxford, Scene of the crime, Spy movies, Tuesday's Overlooked Film. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to The Mind Benders (1963) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

  1. Colin says:

    I really had forgotten about this film Sergio. I saw it a long time ago and didn’t particularly like it. I think you’re right about it being unsure of what kind of movie it wanted to be and falling between stools as a consequence.

    • Easily forgotten – the best of the Dearden / Relph prductions like Victim, Sapphire or The Blue Lamp or even Frieda stand up because the engage despite their topicality. The Mind Benders is genuinely odd, interesting to watch, but frankly I think they were a bit out of their depth. I like films that try to grasp something even when it is clearly beyond their reach, but one has to be honest about it!

      • Colin says:

        I like the Dearden/Relph movies in general, and I’ve seen most from your list. Of those, I’d say this is the one I’m least keen to revisit – I think you’re right that the theme just wasn’t right for these guys and so we end up with an unsatisfactory film. I’ve long believed that if producers don’t have a true feel for the genre they’re working in then it shows up in the finished work.

        • They were certainly very varied in their output but one see that with this film they were perhapos falling foul of that perception that many had of them that there is something perhaps a bit stolid about their desire to tackle important subjects in an ‘accessible’ manner which, you could argue, is either a mark of commercial savvy or a certain loftiness with regard to the intelligence of general audiences. This one os perhaps too self conciously trying tobe ‘different’ or maybe it just wasn’t a pressing enough subject for them. Deep down one suspects they would raher have made a film about the more conventional Clements agent rather than the more diaphanous Bogarde scientist.

          • Colin says:

            Tackling “serious subjects” is always a bit of a hit and miss affair, isn’t it? I think Dearden and Relph had a fair number of hits though.
            From a Hollywood perspective, it’s tempting to see Stanley Kramer in a similar light, but his stuff could be awfully preachy at times. I have a lot of time for Inherit the Wind though.

          • Kramer is I think a very fair comparison, albeit on a very different scale once you get our of the 50s (The Pride and the Passion is great fun but unbelievably foolish in retrospect, with all three leads seeming to be in completely separate movies). In the same way as Dearden and Ralph you could argue that his films just ran out of steam after the mega success of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which seems like very small beer now. I recently re-wacthed The Secret of Santa Vittoria, a film that I remember liking a lot as a kid, and was horrified by how jarring the switches in tone between farce and drama are. I like Inherit the Wind a lot too, though my favourite Kramer remains Ship of Fools, with some many great performers all giving terrific performances and Kramer’s style at its most assured and least intrusive.

          • Colin says:

            Yes, Ship of Fools is excellent – you’ve reminded me I haven’t watched it for a long time.

          • A real favourite and a pretty audacious movie in its own way – even got it on Laser Disc way back when!

  2. Sergio – Brilliant review as ever. I know just what you mean too about films that try to accomplish a lot of things – perhaps too many? – and aren’t sure where they’re going. Your review does show the power of filming technique too. I’m all for plot – oh, trust me. But I can also appreciate a film that uses camera angle, aspect and ratio and so on effectively. I’m glad you reminded me of this.

    • Thanks Margot, as always. I fonf this intriguing for its clear ambition and fascination with Arty cinema. It does fail in its attempt to turn it into a more standarad British movie of the time, but deserves full marks for trying and, on occasion, succeeding – I hope I wasn;t too critical because there is a lot to enjoy. Well worth tracking down.

    • Thanks for that Todd – evidently not-so-forgotten after all! The one thing I would say is that the Kennaway book is in fact a novelisation. The earliest documentation extant on it appears to be Kennaway’s treatment for the film dated January 1960 while the film was completed in 1962 and the novel published in hardback in 1963.

  3. Todd Mason says:

    And I still need to obtain that Dearden box set from Criterion…

    • That does sound rather good, doesn’t it? I’d love to get Victim especially on Blu-ray eventually. Frustratingly, the perfectly good DVD releases of the film seem all bereft of any contextual extras, of which you would think there would be an abundance. A decent book came out on the film recently by the way by John Coldstream – you can download a sample chapter here:

  4. Patti Abbott says:

    I love Dirk Bogarde. I was just reading how Charlotte Rampling trusted his instincts to make THE NIGHT PORTER. Don’t think I have seen this one but VICTIM is sensational.

    • Hi Patti – I saw The Night Porter at a revival house about 20 years ago, appreciated it artistically but must admit, found it too hard to really engage with in anything other than a a ‘philosophical’ way (at best). Never seen it since but there is no denying the commitment of the actors and Bogarde made some terrific choices in the 70s (and some very poor ones too). Victim needless to say is so much more digestible with its crime subplot that I’ve seen it plenty of times – makes me feel a bit of an intellectual featherweight that does, but the truth hurts …

  5. Skywatcher says:

    The espionage element in the script seems like an attempt to cash in on the burgeoning spy boom of the early 60s. The one time that I saw it, many years ago, it came across as a fascinating mess. It reminded me, in a strange way, of the film version of DOOMWATCH. That movie was basically a bit of environmentally aware Sci-Fi that sold itself as a horror film because horror movies were the only ones being made by British studios at the time. The horror element was dropped halfway through the DOOMWATCH movie, making it seem slightly pointless. THE MIND BENDERS really needed to dump the espionage angle and concentrate on the psychological elements. If only they had it might have been a better remembered film.

    • Thanks for that Skywatcher – it sufferes the fate of most hybrid movies of not managing to really serve any of its constituent parts thoroughly enough. I have seen a few episodes of the Doomwatch series but never the movie actually. In the 70s they really did spin off everything, didn’t then? Did we really need George and Mildred The Movie I ask myself…

  6. Sergio, that’s a knockout list of films by Dearden and Relph (pun intended) for here are two filmmakers and their films what are entirely new to me. Of course, I am familiar with Dick Bogarde and I am sure I have seen him on screen before — just don’t ask me where! I like the way you take a film “apart” and, obviously, it’s not enough to understand the finer nuances of a film and its making but the reviewing of it as well. Your professional expertise with BFI Screenonline reflects in all your reviews here. I read your profiles of Kenneth Branagh, Edgar Wallace and Richard Attenborough and was impressed by the site content. The guide to British and Irish film directors is as entertaining as it’s enriching. Terrific stuff, Sergio!

    • Thanks very much Prashant, you’re very kind! That was a few years ago that I wrote those so a lot of them are a bit out of date (though not the Wallace unsurprisingly …)

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