Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Prisoner - "Hammer into Anvil"

Welcome to my viewing diary for The Prisoner. Every Wednesday I will review another episode. This is my first watch-through of the 1967 British cult TV show so there will be NO spoilers for upcoming episodes. But I will be watching the series in this order so if you are watching along with me, keep that in mind.

After a ridiculously elaborate set-up last week, we're back to simplicity with "Hammer into Anvil." In fact, this is one of the cleanest, most straightforward scenarios of any Prisoner episode, a battle of wills and wits. In one corner is Number Six, of course, and in the other is Number Two (Patrick Cargill), who has never seemed more sniveling yet sinister. I thought Cargill looked familiar - presumably as the heavy in some British film from the sixties or seventies - but scrolling through his Wikipedia page I didn't recognize any of his other first. As it turns out, he was already in The Prisoner! Apparently he was "a colleague from Number Six's pre-Village days" in "Many Happy Returns." I checked up and sure enough, that's him although oddly enough he looks somewhat older and more sedate (if still with a touch of the saucy sneer). I don't suppose these are intended as the same characters although given The Prisoner's playful ambiguity, who knows ("Many Happy Returns" also features another repeat actor, the woman who plays Number Two - so in both cases repeat guests are cast as Two). In Six's eyes, Two may not be familiar, but he is fleeting, wryly observing Two's discomfort with his own superiors, and noting that other Twos have tried - and failed - to break him. This is an episode that both benefits and suffers from a late placement in the viewing order. On the one hand, we've seen so many Number Twos come and go that the fragility of his position comes as no surprise. On the other hand...we've seen so many Number Twos come and go that this very lack of surprise hinders the drama. For that reason, and because of how Two is scripted, the confrontation doesn't seem evenly matched.

The tete-a-tete begins with a death. Number Seventy-three (Hilary Dwyer) is in the hospital, where Two is tormenting her. Just a week after I wondered why the Village authorities never tortured Six by mentioning his fiancee, we see Two antagonizing Seventy-three with just this device. Dealt pictures of her husband cheating on her, and then ambiguously menaced by Two offscreen, Seventy-three screams and Six, passing by, runs into her room a few seconds too late to prevent her from leaping out the window. Also in last week's post, I mentioned that it was a surprise to see Two with a fiancee since he seemed too roguish to settle down, but that wasn't quite fair of me. Six is no Bond bedding and insulting a new woman every week; while he can be sharp-tongued, even scathing, and far from tender toward longing women, his chivalry is generally his undoing. In this case, moved by the death of a fellow prisoner who also happens to be a victimized woman, he vows revenge on Two (or more precisely, he matches Two's vow for revenge - part of Two's undoing in "Hammer into Anvil" is that he's always rashly making the first move). Two, whom it is hinted harbors a sadistic streak, asserts that he will be the hammer to Six's anvil. But the episode does an excellent job reminding us that the person with the most overt power is also the person with the most to lose - and thus the most inclined to be anvil rather than hammer. "Hammer into Anvil" underlines one of the show's most important themes: the source of Six's strength is inner assurance rather than physical gadgets or the backing of state power. As such he's a fascinating counterpoint to many notable heroes (Bond among them) who are allowed to be dashing swashbucklers and organization men at the same time, easily shifting between individual heroism and institutional support. By contrast, Six is a true underdog - his only weapon is himself.

Two's first (and really, his only) move is turn up the surveillance, convinced that this will break Six. Instead it offers Six a jujitsu-like maneuver, turning the master's own strength against him. For several days, Six prods Two's latent paranoia. He listens to several records in a store, jotting down a strange note in a newspaper. Then he drops off envelopes filled with blank papers, whispers nonsensical messages to Two's underlings, makes vaguely insinuating phone calls, requests certain songs at a bandstand, and delivers a birthday message to a dead villager. Two becomes convinced that this is all part of a plot, not by outsiders but by his own authorities to undermine him. In the final scene, Six uses Two's own logic against him, not only convincing Two that this is the case but that by overreacting he has proven that his superiors were right to distrust him. In the final brilliant stroke, Six hands Two the dreaded red phone and instructs him to report himself - and he does. Touche. Paranoia always makes a fascinating screen subject, as we watch characters' eyes dart back and forth, sweat running down their brow. Film is a medium well-suited to this state of mind with its ability to show us seemingly normal situations while suggesting just how much might lie offscreen - is it in the characters' minds, or our own, or is it real? Of course, "Hammer into Anvil" can't run with this idea because we always know that Six is playing Two for a fool ("The Schizoid Man" did a better job toying with the question of is-he-or-isn't-he while maintaining our sympathy). That's understandable, but it leaves a heavy burden on Two - somehow we must be able to sympathize with his hysteria even as we root for his downfall.

With that in mind, I wish that The Prisoner had made this week's arch-villain a little brighter. His first scenes are very promising, displaying a slightly unhinged creepiness actually capable of making Six flinch. For a moment, at least, there's a sense of "anything is possible" - is this Number Two crazy or cruel enough to actually torture Six, or to spot a weakness that anyone else has discovered? However, the second that Six sets his counterplot in motion, Two is all twitchy confusion and desperation. I can't help but feel it would have been more effective for him to be smugly in control for a few scenes longer. Maybe he even has a sense of what Six is doing, but little by little doubt creeps in? A key element of paranoia is the awareness that someone might just be fucking with you, along with the inability to discharge the opposite possibility that there really is something bigger going on. I would have loved to see Two lose his cool little by little rather than all at once. That said, I don't want to seem too nitpicky. This was a solid episode, and I liked a lot of the scenes, especially as Two berates his underlings. Their miserable expressions evoke the experience of every employee who has ever had to suffer through the manipulations of Captain Queeg-like supervisors. Likewise, Six's erratic behavior is a lot of fun, a perfectly straightfaced parody of spy-story maneuvers. As always, McGoohan has been brilliantly cast (by himself of course), able to simultaneously portray the poker-face alpha male hero and a winking subversion of such - he's the crucial key to The Prisoner's dual status as comedy and drama. And despite my complaints about his characterization, Cargill is perfectly cast too. His descent into isolated fanaticism is well-played, although I wish it was more gradual and felt a bit more organic (as always, my greatest hesitation about a show I'm mostly loving is its reliance on convenient plot developments).

The episode's concept is certainly laudatory. I love The Prisoner's ability to shift gears, and overlap, between sci-fi high concept, spy-movie intrigue, and psychological drama. Wikipedia points out that Six never tries to escape in "Hammer into Anvil" and that Two never tries to extract information; while the latter is somewhat debatable (after all, why is he trying to break him if not ultimately to get information?) it's true that this episode demonstrates one of The Prisoner's most interesting qualities. Not only does it vary its characters, story events, and even (to a certain extent) its environment episode-to-episode, it even varies the characters' goals. Sometimes Six's purpose is to get away, sometimes his purpose is to resist, and sometimes - as it is here - his purpose is to inflict harm on others (who deserve it, of course). Sometimes he is determined to accomplish all three, with the balance between them shifting too. With only three episodes to go, this leads me to wonder what direction the series will finally choose. I've yet to hear anyone claim that the final two episodes can/should be watched in any particular order like the rest. There is an understanding, then, that something about them demands they be seen as a finale, a closing statement on the show. What will they focus on? Six's need to escape - and stay escaped - from the Village? I doubt it, if only because we've seen already how little this accomplishes. The authorities' desire to get information from Six, particularly why he resigned? Perhaps, though I can't help but feel this is a MacGuffin, even a red herring, more a demonstration of Six's resilience than an important plot point. Somehow Six must defeat the Village - not just a temporary Two, but the underlying power behind it - or it must defeat him. Before we get there, we have one more episode to go. It's an episode I've heard described both as the nadir of the series and one of the best hours of television ever. I'm curious to see where my impression falls along that spectrum.

Next episode: The Girl Who Was Death


James Cooray Smith said...

I think there are two main interesting things about this episode (which I like as a battle of wills between two very good actors). The first is that Patrick Cargill is best known in the UK for the light comedy series "Father Dear Father" in which he played a clueless doting old Dad and which ran for three million years. So it's very odd as a Brit to see him in such a nasty part. The second is that his No 2 misunderstands the quote he's making. You don't break an Anvil with a Hammer, you break a Hammer on an Anvil. It is the Anvil that survives the encounter, not the Hammer. That's the whole point of Anvils. So the story is contained in microcosm in his misunderstanding of what he quotes. A lot of Prisoner fans have convinced themselves that this No 2 is a former Nazi, because of the whole German literature thing. But I think that's nonsense. He's just an old fashioned upper class English public school bully. Which fits with him not understanding the great literature his expensive education fed him.

Joel Bocko said...

Great point - I did think it was odd for them to assume an anvil would be destroyed by a hammer (I wondered if No. 2 meant nail & hammer?) but you're right, it's completely the other way around...