Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Mind Benders

It is Dirk Bogarde's collaborations with Joseph Losey (five films) and Luchino Visconti (two films) that are made the most of by the critics. But what of his four-film association with Basil Dearden? It was under Dearden's direction that the world got its first glimpse of the dark side of Dirk - as Tom Riley in 'The Blue Lamp'. They did their finest work together with 'Victim' - an incredibly brave, taboo-busting film which helped change public perception and attitudes towards gay men. For these two films alone, Bogarde and Dearden can be forgiven a couple of misfires: 'The Gentle Gunman', more John Mills's show than Bogarde's and a film that leaves a nasty taste with me in its confused quasi-sympathies with its IRA protagonists; and the production under consideration today, 'The Mind Benders'.

It's a curate's egg of a film, starting out with a tense bit of scientist-on-the-run business which recalls the Boulting Brothers' 'Seven Days to Noon', then edging into scientific/behavioural paranoia territory that would be exploited far more effectively in the later '60s and in the '70s ('The Mind Benders' was made in 1963) in everything from 'The Manchurian Candidate' to 'The Parallax View'. Both of these are about brainwashing. 'The Mind Benders' treads a similar path, but is more concerned with the mind's susceptibility and how isolation experiments change the subject: their behaviour, their personality, the likelihood of their responding to influences which would normally be alien to them.

All the ingredients for ... well, whatever you want to make of them. Tense thriller. Social satire. Just-round-the-corner speculative sci-fi. Dearden and writer James Kennaway could have gone anywhere with the material. In the hands of a bizarro visionary like Dario Argento (okay, I know he'd barely started out in cinema by then; indulge me), there would be scope to go crazy with the material. Hell, even Ken Russell would have turned it into a subversive symphony of brain-boggling visuals. Dearden arranges slab-like utilitarian Sixties architecture into some decent compositions and conjures a moodily effective image of hero-by-default Professor Longman (Bogarde) as his personality begins to change, but for much of its scant 95-minute running time 'The Mind Benders' is crushingly ordinary.

So why select it for the Dirk-fest? Truth is, I ran a little short of material this time round. There is so much of Bogarde's filmography still unavailable on DVD. 'Providence' is floating around on the personal faves list and I'm tempted to write about it from memory (even though it's a good fifteen years since I've seen it) but the ever-hopeful part of me opts to bide its time until that belated DVD release occurs. Quite a few of the titles that are available, I don't want to write about - films that Bogarde owed his matinee idol status to (the 'Doctor' films, for example) but are actually pretty lame. I notched up seven films apiece on the First and Second Annual Dirk-Fests, and between what's in the collection and what the Lovefilm queue has come up with I've only just made it to seven this year.

(I'm already thinking that next year's Dirk-fest might of necessity focus on Dirk Bogarde the writer, principally his autobiographical works.)

Also, 'The Mind Benders' is not entirely without merit. The isolation experiment Longman undergoes, robbed of all sensory stimuli as he floats underwater, is effectively realised, particularly when Longman realises the movement of his hand through the water can restore one of the senses - touch - to him; the eroticism with which his mind seizes on this is demonstrated by a simple but effective overlay:

The cast is strong: a host of British cinema stalwarts (some at the very start of their careers) turn in sterling work - John Clements, Michael Bryant, Wendy Craig, Terence Alexander, Edward Fox, Geoffrey Keen and an excellent, often underrated Mary Ure. Bogarde, needless to say, is peerless. A scene where he is confronted with his own culpability in an experiment that mentally scarred a colleague sees him swing between defiance and doubt, bitterness and regret. Bogarde doesn't miss a beat in his multi-faceted characterisation. He gives the material a credibility it probably doesn't deserve.

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