Much Love is Lost for Dirk Bogarde in Basil Dearden Slow-burn.
DIRECTED BY BASIL DEARDEN/1963
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: OCTOBER 15, 2019/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
“For God’s sake, where are you??”
This is a question asked most earnestly in Basil Dearden‘s 1963 brainwashing thriller, The Mind Benders. It’s floated in what would otherwise be a romantic moment, but at that point is in capable of being any such thing. The reason for that is, that our male protagonist, played by Dirk Bogarde, has been voluntarily mentally reprogrammed. The part of the deal that he did not count on, though, was that said reprogramming is the deletion of his great love for his wife. A sort of contemporary Othello plot, alien with the best of intentions. Consequently, as his wife Oonagh (Mary Ure) stares into his glassy, empty eyes on an otherwise beautiful moonlit night, she’s overcome with the realization that the man she loved is in fact simply not there.
The Mind Benders is, as is pointed out in the absorbing commentary by Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson, another of British director Basil Dearden‘s sharply cautionary tales of duality and frightening character transformation. This one is a particular slow burn, if no less harrowing than the director’s most celebrated works. Notoriously given an X certificate in its home country upon its release, there isn’t much blatantly objectionable about The Mind Benders aside from, as our commentators point out, its unrelenting heavy air of despair and harsh psychological cruelty exhibited throughout. These aspects are not to be shortchanged, just as the lack of any “likable“ protagonists (short of Oonagh, who spends far too much of the film put upon) is also most true and apparent.
Bogarde plays Dr. Henry Laidlaw Longman, A committed family man with an insider’s job regarding Cold War espionage, which is a major plot point of the film. The Cold War, though, isn’t at all what this is really about. Longman and his two colleagues have been experimenting with what is commonly known to be a sensory deprivation tank (though never referred as such in the film), and its speculative effects upon a person’s very soul.
When it is suspected that an otherwise trustworthy colleague had been brainwashed by Soviets, coercing him into turning over top secret information, it is decided that the only way to prove this late gentleman’s innocence is if one of Longman’s inner circle subjects himself to the same procedure. If the procedure is successful, that means their colleague was innocent. If it is not successful, then his memory will forever be branded with the dread “T for traitor“. A possible side effect is his loss of personality and deathly tendencies, as exhibited by the colleague in question at the very beginning of the film, when he dramatically takes his own life.
The central question is, can a person’s very soul- his very will- be externally ripped open and altered in a way that he himself would never otherwise budge upon? Via this experimental procedure of submerged isolation, can Dr. Longman be “reprogrammed” into believing that he never had any affection for the love of his life? Can true love be erased? The film’s answer, and how it goes about arriving there, may disturb you.
This new Blu-ray edition of The Mind Benders from KL Studio Classics, sporting a gorgeous new 4K transfer, does a tremendous job of presenting the film’s ominous black and white cinematography. The film audio, being British through and through, is not one for raised voices or thunderous sound effects. Yet, Dearden’s cultivated atmosphere of dread and subtle despair also comes through in large part via the film’s audio track. And again, Kino Lorber comes through with a quality soundtrack.
The Blu-ray’s only notable extra feature is the aforementioned newly recorded audio commentary track by Thompson and Berger, both of whom, it must be said, are particularly on fire in their engagement with The Mind Benders. Their approach is somehow conversational yet authoritative, not talking at each other and the listener, but rather simply sharing their well-cultivated insights on the film before us. Even longtime Dearden and/or Bogarde fans are likely to come away having learned something.
As for me, I must confess that I had a rough go of it for the first thirty or so minutes of The Mind Benders. In that time, there’s a crazy suicide, a conspiracy theory detailed, and everything you ever needed to know about sensory deprivation (or, “isolation”). And yet, I found the underlying austerity of it all nearly sleep inducing. It occurred to me that this film was a far cry from the other Dearden title I reviewed recently, The Man Who Haunted Himself, with Roger Moore. It took me longer than I would’ve liked to warm up to what Dearden is doing here. Even before Oonagh blurts out her question of “For God’s sake, where are you?”, I found myself asking the movie itself the same thing. Once I was on board, however, I quickly shifted to a place of admiration regarding the audience-challenging boldness of not just this story, but his measured methodology in telling it. Better late than never, I suppose. This is a most interesting piece, ripe for multiple viewings.
Not exactly horror, and skirting the edges of what’s safely considered Film Noir, The Mind Benders bends our perceptions and opens our minds in the consideration of some tremendously uneasy things. The film exists in an isolation tank all of its own.