Professor Sharpey (Harold Goldblatt) of Oxford University is under surveillance, and has been for the past month or so, since he is believed to be a pawn of the Soviet intelligence sector. He is certainly behaving peculiarly, and as he boards a train from London to the university he only vaguely acknowledges his colleague Dr Tate (Michael Bryant). Worse is to come: as the journey progresses, he suddenly leaps from his seat, opens the door and jumps from the speeding train; the communication cord is pulled, but it is too late, he is dead. The agent tailing him, Major Hall (John Clements), is now determined to uncover the reasons for this bizarre and ultimately fatal act...
But he knows more than he is letting on, for the trigger for Sharpey's suicide turns out to be brain experiments that have had viewers and commentators alike pondering on whether The Mind Benders should be classified as science fiction or not. Tales of mad science had abounded ever since the dawn of the moving picture, yet there was a card at the beginning of this, just above the copyright notice, that stated the science behind the premise was entirely drawn from fact, from American laboratory experiments. Was this a bit of flim-flam to have us swallow its pseudoscience, or were there studies that genuinely found a way to break down personalities, like in the movies?
Considering the technique they use, you would be tempted to plump for the latter, for this was a story to warn the audience about the dangers of... sensory deprivation tanks! Egads, the fiends, making their guinea pigs relax in a tank of water for a while! They don't even put on a tape of whale music! With many decades of New Age mental health improvement credited to this apparatus, looking back on The Mind Benders is a somewhat absurd experience when the logic employed just is not borne out in real life. It was not as extreme as Ken Russell's curiously similar adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky's Altered States in 1980, nobody regresses down the evolutionary ladder, but still.
The love of a good woman was paramount in the plot here as well as the seventeen-years-after effort, and a marriage was under strain too - they even ended with a crisis that can only be solved by the power of romance. What happens in this is that scientist Dr Henry Longman, played eventually by Dirk Bogarde (who is glimpsed once in the first twenty-three minutes, as if the star was reluctant to appear), has just emerged from one of his sessions in the tank which left him, in his self-experimentation, a changed man that he is only now getting over. But Sharpey's mystery must be solved, so he is persuaded to get back in the water in a diving suit for eight hours, which sends him off his rocker, though oddly we only get to see the occasional burst of irrationality and much of his temperament is related through anecdote.
The wife was Oonagh, played by Mary Ure, better known from the stage or if you were more gossipy, the partner and later wife of star Robert Shaw; she bore him five children before her untimely death, which has a parallel in her fertile character here. Oonagh is pregnant with her fifth child, a fact that brings about the climax where one of the big screen's first birth sequences unfolded, maybe not one hundred percent convincing to modern eyes, but more realistic than what had gone before. The power of the female to soothe the male scientist's brow was a big theme, despite the hell said scientist puts them through, but mostly this was engaged in prompting the viewer to question the validity of life-changing experiments that have consequences in espionage and the Cold War in general, not an idea original to this, but also not an idea often conveyed in such an intense and downright strange manner either. Director Basil Dearden was no stranger to the issue picture, but this was too abstract and finally, unbelievable in its conclusions, though the committed acting made for a strong impression. Music by Georges Auric.
[Network release this title on Blu-ray, restored and with the trailer and an image gallery as extras.]