The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents March 2010 Return to Table of Contents
Shutter Island
John C. Flinn III, ASC
Sol Negrin, ASC
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
Paris, Texas
The Prisoner
ASC Close-Up
The Prisoner: The Complete Series (1968)
Blu-ray Edition
Dolby Digital 5.1 & Digital Monaural 1.0
A&E New Video, $99.95

The slick, yellow Lotus 7 Series 2 sports car makes the scene on an uncharacteristically sunny afternoon in the swinging London of the late 1960s and zips into a discreet underground garage. From his cool, compact automobile slips the tough but dashing passenger into an ominous hallway that takes him directly to a lone bureaucrat’s desk, upon which he angrily drops an envelope marked “private,” “personal” and “by hand.” Moments later, the passenger is in his posh flat, where he quickly packs a suitcase. Meanwhile, just outside his door, a dark figure pumps a noxious gas through the keyhole, knocking the passenger out.   

When the passenger comes to, he stumbles through what appears to be his flat but is, in fact, a strikingly detailed facsimile. When he pulls open the window blinds, he finds his surroundings have morphed to a lush seaside village. Running outside into the bucolic but alien surroundings, the passenger realizes he is trapped in an unusual village in which he is called Number 6.

Number 6 (Patrick McGoohan) visits the mysterious Number 2, who explains this village is now Number 6’s home because his former employers want information. Number 6 was a secret agent for the British government and had just turned in his resignation. News of his abrupt departure has not settled well with British Intel, which will monitor him until Intel finds out why he quit the business. Number 2 assures Number 6 all will be revealed if he simply explains why he is leaving the fold. When a suspicious Number 6 insists he simply wanted a vacation, Number 2 reiterates that without an explanation, he will remain a prisoner.

At the height of its popularity in the late 1960s, British television show Danger Man (a.k.a. Secret Agent in the United States) was coming to a close. McGoohan, who played lead spy John Drake, announced he was dropping out to focus on another project, which he was developing with Danger Man’s script editor, George Markstein. Markstein’s idea to do a follow-up show that featured a Drake-like character trapped in unusual captivity intrigued McGoohan. Based on true stories about aging war spies who were retired to luxury retreats by nervous governments fearing they might defect, the two developed a unique and subversive spy thriller that flirted with science fiction and surrealism, with its tongue planted firmly in its cheek. The result of their efforts would become The Prisoner, one of the most popular and iconic television productions of its kind in the medium’s history.

To give The Prisoner just the right blend of suspense, intrigue and sinister camp, producer and star McGoohan gathered an experienced, clever production team to create the visuals. Heading the team was cinematographer Brendan J. Stafford, BSC, who had previously worked with McGoohan on Danger Man. Working closely with art director Jack Shampan, Stafford captured The Prisoner with elaborate, often high-key lighting accentuating vivid primary colors. Stafford made the most of the picturesque exterior location on the grounds of the historic Hotel Portmeirion in North Wales, giving it an idyllic but memorably, otherworldly feel.

The Prisoner has been nicely buffed for its Blu-ray debut. The series was available previously on DVD, but this new presentation is the most revealing to date, and the show has never looked better. The 1080p HD transfers of the 17 episodes are clean and sharp, and much of the transfer quality is eye popping considering the age of the source materials. Colors really shine, with excellent detail in nearly every frame. Contrasts are exceptionally well balanced, with a pleasing overall sharpness far surpassing any previous transfers. The audio is available in a solid original monaural format or a slick, newly mastered surround track that supplies added dimension to sound effects and the show’s popular music score.    

In addition to the luminous picture transfer, this five-platter Blu-ray edition has an extraordinary collection of supplements, starting with audio commentaries from various members of the production team on several episodes. The 17 episodes are spread across four discs, and the fifth disc, a standard-def DVD, features the bulk of the supplements, including the absorbing feature-length “making of” documentary Don’t Knock Yourself Out, which features members of the cast and crew. Two short, newly produced interview segments, restored original edits of two episodes, episode trailers, a myriad of production and design stills, alternate title sequences, original-episode scripts, advertising galleries and promos for the contemporary remake that aired last year on AMC comprise the rest of the supplements.

More than 40 years since it first arrived on TV screens, the groundbreaking, enticing mysteries of The Prisoner continue to fascinate. A&E’s New Video has pulled out all the stops in producing this package, which will no doubt thrill long-standing fans as well as curious newcomers. Now in HD, Number 6 will again battle the treacherous Number 2 and his cohorts while trying, through each episode, to escape the village and prove no man is just a number.

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