The Cuban Missile Crisis was perhaps the height of the cold war. So it is hardly surprising that both The Manchurian Candidate and the lesser-known British film The Mind Benders were made that same year. Both films are concerned with brain-washing; the former based on the experiences of GIs in the Korean War and the latter on experiments in ‘the reduction of sensation carried out at certain universities in the United States’, according to the opening title. The technique is explained with the aid of a wonderful pastiche of a university science film (looking remarkably like something Steve Zissou might have made) which shows how a few hours in a sensory deprivation tank can affect a man – how it can ‘reduce him until he becomes a sort of soulless, mindless, will-less thing. Not even a man at all’.
Although the film begins like a cold-war thriller (‘with the drafty telephone boxes and park seats – the whole chilly paraphernalia of treason’, as John Clements’ Major Hall observes) it develops into something very different. Perhaps this is not surprising, considering director Basil Dearden’s pedigree. He is most famous for ‘issue films’: tackling race in Sapphire, juvenile delinquency in The Blue Lamp (in which Dirk Bogarde was cast against type as a teenage ruffian) and homosexuality in the ground-breaking Victim (again with Bogarde). Whereas in The Manchurian Candidate brain-washing can lead to presidential assassination attempts, in The Mind Benders it causes marriage difficulties. Mary Ure sees her marriage descend into another Look Back in Anger as her husband succumbs to the power of suggestion (he is told that he hates his wife while in his weakened state). However, it is this approach that makes The Mind Benders such a curiosity and perhaps also it is where the film ultimately fails. The cross between sci-fi and family drama is interesting but neither area is sufficiently developed for it to work. This may be because Ure and Bogarde’s marriage difficulties occur largely off-screen during a family holiday: the story of sexual humiliation in Amsterdam is told but not seen (although the film was surprisingly awarded an X-certificate on its original release).
Despite starring everyone’s favourite pin-up doctor, Dirk Bogarde, the film was a box office and critical failure at the time – with one headline reading, ‘Bogarde thriller is shabby and nasty’. Although this seems an exaggeration the film can be seen as a continuation of Bogarde’s move away from his Rank screen idol persona (although he was still to reprise his role as the charming Doctor Simon Sparrow throughout the 60s), a journey that was to lead to the genuinely nasty The Damned (1969) and The Night Porter (1974).
All in all, The Mind Benders is a fascinating failure. It is intelligent science fiction made for an adult audience (although hardly deserving its X-certificate). Dearden directs with his usual moody seriousness (and with the staid professionalism that always separated him from the younger generation of directors that included Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson). Even the mind-bending hallucinations in the tank (a few double-exposure shots) are handled with a degree of subtlety. The cast are excellent, particularly Bogarde, who in true Dr Jeckyll style, plays both scientist and guinea pig, and Ure as his suffering wife. Georges Auric’s score is also noteworthy but one can’t help thinking the subject matter might have been better suited to Roger Corman.