This strange picture goes forth in search of a genre, mainly because its theme — the destruction of the human personality — had previously seen light only in movies about brainwashing and alien possession. The Michael Relph and Basil Dearden team may not be as slick as The Archers, but they do peg this sober Isolation Chamber drama — even if we wonder if Dirk Bogarde will start talking like Paddy Chayefsky, and then shape-shift into an ape man. The real issue here is scientific ethics, of which Bogarde’s associates seem to have zero.
The Mind Benders
KL Studio Classics
1963 / B&W / 1:66 widescreen / 109 min. / Street Date October 15, 2019 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Dirk Bogarde, Mary Ure, John Clements, Michael Bryant, Wendy Craig, Harold Goldblatt, Geoffrey Keen.
Cinematography: Denys N. Coop
Film Editor: John D. Guthridge
Original Music: Georges Auric
Written by James Kennaway
Produced by Michael Relph
Directed by Basil Dearden
Some films are difficult to classify. A serious movie about sensory deprivation experiments, The Mind Benders is often listed as science fiction. But it plays more like an espionage tale, a psycho thriller, or a love story, and shadows several different threads in the history of fantastic films. This technically non- fantastic tale comes from the established old-school Brit filmmaking team of Michael Relph and Basil Dearden. They had good instincts for subject material, and sometimes turned out first-class work: Sapphire, All Night Long, Victim, The League of Gentlemen. James Kennaway’s original script keeps the psychological effects at the level of personal relationships.
Is there a brain drain going on, or just the defection of an untrustworthy scientist? Professor Sharpey (Harold Goldblatt) has apparently sold secrets to the Russians, and kills himself under bizarre circumstances. MI5 Major Hall (John Clements) investigates Sharpey’s experiments in Isolation Studies and concludes that the once-loyal professor has indeed turned traitor. But Sharpey’s partner Dr. Henry Longman (Dirk Bogarde) is determined to prove that the isolation experiments were responsible and reluctantly offers to undergo a long immersion in the sense-depriving water tank, even though he’s barely recovered from the psychic effects of a previous experiment. Longman’s wife Oonagh (Mary Ure), knowing the danger, dreads Henry’s return to the tank. Major Hall is convinced that the isolation chamber is the ideal brainwashing device. Using the argument that they can prove Sharpey innocent, Hall entreats Henry’s associate Dr. Danny Tate (Michael Bryant) into conducting a morally inadvisable experiment: to alter Henry’s personality.
The Mind Benders approaches its subject soberly. It’s going to seem slow-paced to viewers aware of Ken Russell’s somewhat similar movie Altered States, where a sensory deprivation tank (plus some drugs?) leads William Hurt to an audiovisual phantasmagoria that ends with a shape-shifting journey back in evolution not dissimilar to that of The She-Creature.
Special behavior & mind-control experiments using special drugs, LSD and other even weirder ideas were special activities of America’s intelligence agencies, and the fallout was felt here and there in films. The Relph-Dearden picture taps the same weird-but-true vibe seen in the same year’s X – The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, by Roger Corman. The ‘reduction of sensation’ experiments aren’t yet called Sensory Deprivation, and we hear a lot of well-researched and authentic-sounding exposition repeating what exactly’s going on. Prolonged experiences in isolation tanks become highly concentrated mental torture sessions, where the Self is broken down, and the personality ‘loosened.’ Dr. Longman emerges in a state of susceptibility to suggestions that can permanently change his beliefs and behavior. The investigators convince Longman that his loving wife Oonagh is a tramp, and that he doesn’t love her. The basic premise of Condon’s Manchurian Candidate appears to be valid.
The meddlers at first believe that their mental manipulation has failed, because Longman seems unchanged. The scary thing is that their seeded suggestions make themselves known only later, as with the genetic changes in Cronenberg’s The Fly. The balance of the film follows the efforts to turn Longman’s Mr. Hyde back into Dr. Jekyll.
Professionally directed by Basil Dearden, The Mind Benders is a well-acted tale where events are (now) perhaps a bit too predictable. But it’s full of fascinating ideas and connections. A second cousin to hardcore British Science Fiction fantasy, it acknowledges the existence of the dissenting ‘ban the bomb’ mentality championed in Val Guest’s ever-more relevant The Day the Earth Caught Fire. Professor Sharpey was ejected from the U.S. government research community for his pacifist ideas. Now that he’s back home, the English intelligence ferrets are hot on his case as well. The Major Hall character is a ruthless gentleman spy, cold warrior with an umbrella. He also says that he has a background as a scientist. Hall doesn’t have a Quatermass-like secret lab, but he’d be a perfect fit for Bernard’s cruel experiment in Joseph Losey’s apocalyptic Sci-fi thriller These are the Damned.
The mind-altering trials conducted by the United States Department of Defense weren’t carried out for curiosity’s sake or to launch the culture guru Timothy Leary: the point was to explore the possibilities of rumored brainwashing and mind-control by the Communists. Major Hall leaps to life when he realizes that Longman’s mental state after only eight hours in the tank is identical to that of a brainwashing subject who’s been subjected to months of torture and solitary confinement. Hall would seem to have discovered a useful enhanced interrogation tool.
Movies about literal ‘brainwashing’ were produced, but the theme launched dozens of sci-fi fantasies about The Remote Control of Human Beings. Suddenly we’re not just talking about military case histories, like The Hook, but influential exotica such as Invaders from Mars and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The new enemy may not be a monster, but a loved one programmed to be a zombie for evil puppet masters, a Manchurian Candidate, perhaps. Can we trust anybody? Are students being programmed with evil foreign propaganda? The connections come full circle, from sci-fi to politics to history, and back to sci-fi again. The only safe way to confront the world is with total distrust: paranoia.
The political truth of the 1950s Age of Anxiety left its mark in movies: The Mind Benders clearly states that the U.S. and the UK as well as their Soviet counterparts were very keen on finding ways to mentally control people and pull information from their heads. In a couple of years, spy movies would characterize the West as amateurs trying to keep current with evil Communist brainwashing techniques. The elaborate brain-drain process described in The Ipcress File (“Induction of Psychoneuroses by Conditioned Reflex under Stress”) now seems directly inspired by The Mind Benders. Brainwashing would join nuclear weapons, nerve gas, and biological agents on the list of activities that the West would spearhead, while our entertainments pretended they were the exclusive province of soulless foreign foes.
The unwritten scene in The Mind Benders, therefore, is where Major Hall brings in a platoon of soldiers and converts Dr. Sharpey’s Oxford lab into a top secret military ‘establishment,’ the Hammer-Guest-Losey kind surrounded by barbed wire and patrolled by ominous James Bernard music. But Relph, Dearden and author James Kennaway (Tunes of Glory, Violent Playground) steer The Mind Benders is a wholly different, intimate direction, as a performance drama for Dirk Bogarde and Mary Ure. Although Bogarde’s Longman enters on the late side, most of the rest of the film centers on his emotional state. His ordeal is an updated version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The isolation treatment doesn’t split him into moral extremes, but it does soften Longman’s consciousness into a jelly that can be permanently altered with just a few well-placed suggestions. The horrible truth: Hall and Tate try to negate Longman’s love for his wife, ostensibly to prove that Dr. Sharpey was an innocent puppet, not a traitor.
The experiment only works if what Dr. Tate believes is true: that Hall loved his wife in the first place. Hall doesn’t trust anyone, so why should he be so sure that Longman’s change of heart was the experiment’s doing? The film’s weakest aspect is that Longman’s psychological changes occur off-camera. We’re confronted only with his extreme behaviors. Oonagh must fill in the gap with a few stories of their disintegrating relationship, including some rather tame-sounding sexual humiliation, that comes off as stagey. The highly theatrical final act sees Henry Longman de-programmed through another more natural intense ordeal — an emergency childbirth.
Basil Dearden doesn’t hype the dramatic staging with visual fireworks, but the isolation tank scenes does make use of some atmospheric angles and double exposures. An image of Oonagh floats with Longman when his mind dreams of her, a visual that might have been a springboard for Altered States. The earlier work of Professor Sharpey is related via a film documentary, a bit of film-in-film docu realism that relates back to ’50s sci-fi, like Destination Moon and Them! Other elements are less essential. Perhaps to jazz up the movie for script approval, Longman is given a fairly meaningless antique car, for romantic pre-experiment picnics in the countryside.
John Clements makes a steely Major Hall, a spymaster with zero James Bond appeal. Michael Bryant (Lenin in Nicholas and Alexandra, Dr. Herder in The Ruling Class) is effective as Longman’s research associate, even though the subplot of his private yearning for Oonagh goes nowhere. Wendy Craig from The Servant has an equally unassimilated role as a bohemian divorcee on a houseboat (!) who gets tangled up in the undeveloped love foursome of the film’s last act. Dirk Bogarde’s Longman is, if anything, a bit overdeveloped. He certainly projects a complicated man, but his transformation from neurotic Jekyll into sardonic Hyde is not really covered. Mary Ure is excellent in a difficult rule, that includes the convincing childbirth scene that surely earned the film its original ‘X’ Certificate. As opposed to the typical Sci-fi concerned wife, Oonagh provides an emotional foundation for a story that would otherwise be adrift in mindwarping science concepts.
A very young Edward Fox can be seen in a one-line bit, early on.
I’m going to bet that today’s viewers will be asking why the film doesn’t fully address the awful actions — a crime, really — perpetrated by Hall and Tate. Hall’s claim that ‘it had to be done’ is just garbage. What they do to Longman, without his knowledge, is as much a ‘Nazi’ experiment as the many bizarre Army and intelligence programs that subjected unknowing people, often prisoners and soldiers, to mind-bending drugs. Hall and Tate monkey with Longman’s brain and turn him loose like a Clockwork Orange, without even telling his wife. We expect such things in frivolous escapist thrillers, but The Mind Benders is more serious, more ‘responsible.’ It’s a black mark for the public awareness of scientific responsibility.
Perhaps the movie that this thriller most resembles is Nicholas Ray’s Bigger than Life, a milestone picture about mind-altering substances. Cortisone overdoses turn James Mason’s loving husband into a raving psychotic. Mason is not being brainwashed. The drugs liberate and exaggerate suppressed facets of his personality. When he’s ‘cured’ at the end, the chilling truth remains that somewhere inside Mason there still exists this man who wants to dominate everyone around him, to dispense God’s judgment on the world. There’s a Pulp chain from The Mind Benders to Bigger than Life, straight on to Fritz Lang’s The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, where a madman wishes to unleash havoc on the world. We are the megalomaniac supervillains.
Is Altered States a remake? Paddy Chayefsky’s ‘love conquers all’ ending is emotionally satisfying but rather silly next to The Mind Benders. Michael Bryant describes Isolation subjects as ‘dissolving’ in the water tank, something that becomes a freaked-out literal reality in the Ken Russell movie. Altered States takes the same theme down the Timothy Leary road, on a psychedelic search for the Soul. The Mind Benders shows the research for what it was, research in a methodology to enslave men’s minds. Curiously, the mind-altering experiments in Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World explore both of these directions at the same time — and connect with the way that personal electronic devices are reprogramming human behavior. The long version of Wenders’ film is due out in November from Criterion.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Mind Benders has real punch, thanks to the crisp HD rendering, mastered in 4K, of Denys Coop’s fine B&W cinematography. Relph/Dearden pictures never look cheap, and this one benefits from location filming at Oxford. I think I recognized camera angles used almost fifty years later in An Education. The show has an important look; it’s interesting that its authentic, docu-like surface now seems so tame, after Ken Russell’s Altered States.
This uncut 109 minute version is a whole reel longer than the U.S. release through American-International in 1963. Georges Auric’s stirring score comes across strong in the tense main titles; the opening music reminds us of the Auric bombast that prefaces Dead of Night, a segment of which was directed by Basil Dearden. Kino’s subtitles help with understanding all of the Brit dialogue.
The welcome commentary by Nathaniel Thompson and Howard S. Berger is informative if a little loose; Berger sometimes falls into repetitive praise of Basil Dearden’s cycle of progressive social issue pictures. Other films tangentially related to, or just suggested by The Mind Benders are discussed as well. Both Berger and Thompson fixate on the film’s moral and ethical dilemma, for the better: no matter how things might turn out, the two scientists that mislead Longman and put his marriage in jeopardy, are committing a really heinous crime.
It’s a shame that the stage actress Mary Ure is not well known for her fine performances in this film, Look Back in Anger, Sons and Lovers and The Luck of Ginger Coffey.
An unimpressive trailer tries to present The Mind Benders as a shocking adult exposé. It’s hosted by a man in a room full of posters for the film, who soberly states that he can’t show us any scenes. We’re then shown some shots anyway. The film’s science and politics probably threw the original marketers, who then decided to stress the sex angle. An older disc for The Mind Benders bore copy proclaiming it an inspiration for The Manchurian Candidate. How can an English film released in 1963 ‘inspire’ an American film released in 1962?
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Mind Benders
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Audio commentary by Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson; Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: September 21, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson