This is an unusual suspense drama, combining as it does a variety of different generic elements, one of Britain’s biggest box office draws now making the transition to more character-based parts and an overall earnestness that leaves one in no doubt of its seriousness of intent. The film came from the team of director Basil Dearden and producer Michael Relph, already known for tackling a variety of topical themes such as race relations (Sapphire in 1959 and, via Shakespeare’s Othello, All Night Long in 1962), medical ethics and religious freedom (LIFE FOR RUTH, 1962) and the UK’s homosexuality laws (VICTIM, 1961) and using the conventions of the thriller and suspense drama to make them more palatable to broad audiences.
In that sense it certainly fulfills many of the criteria for the perfect Sunday afternoon viewing, though perhaps compared with their earlier productions one can discern a greater degree of effort in streamlining this story to fit a more commercial genre template. It was shot superbly 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. Intrigue is provided in James Kennaway’s screenplay in the form of a mild spy plot about a possible traitor and a sexy topical subject (brainwashing); much fascinating sociological detail comes through with the emphasis on the minutiae of every day life as shot on real locations (in this case Oxford). This is combined with the era’s burgeoning new frankness in its depiction of sexual matters and language and an old-time old-fashioned star in Dirk Bogarde who is seen here clearly attempting to move away from his matinée idol past and capitalise on the critical success of VICTIM, his previous collaboration with Dearden and Relph, and forge a new approach to cinema stardom.
Is the finished film any good though? One has to say that 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 it has 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, which in the end plays like the lead up 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 score by George Auric is horribly banal and overbearing and the narrative strategies, while intriguing, are handled incredibly clumsily – a voice over is briefly introduced at the halfway mark because they can’t find another way to get over some plot data and then forgotten; 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 ther 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.
What the film does have however are several sterling performances, most notably from Bogarde and his ambivalent friend played by Michael Bryant; John Clements is nice and sturdy and dependable as you’d expect, while Mary Ure gets a bit of a raw deal – 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. 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). Not really a role you can play so much as survive, if you are lucky. 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.
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 po-faced trailer (the face in question belonging to Edgar Lustgarten) tries very hard to see it as a controversial thriller and is available on YouTube here. An online mashup/tribute to the movie can be found here.