Skip to main content

Well, it must be terribly secret, because I wasn't even aware I was a member.

The Brotherhood of the Bell
(1970)

(SPOILERS) No, not Joseph P Farrell’s book about the Nazi secret weapons project, but rather a first-rate TV movie in the secret-society ilk of later flicks The Skulls and The Star Chamber. Only less flashy and more cogent. Glenn Ford’s professor discovers the club he joined 22 years earlier is altogether more hardcore than he could have ever imagined – not some student lark – when they call on the services he pledged. David Karp’s adaptation of his novel, The Brotherhood of the Bell is so smart in its twists and turns of plausible deniability, you’d almost believe he had insider knowledge.

Patterson: Two men are dead… because I bought a lie. A lie that you can get something for nothing.

Professor Andrew Patterson (Ford) is first seen attending an initiation ceremony for Philip (Robert Pine), the newest member of St George’s College’s Brotherhood of the Bell. The initiation room is conspicuous in its garish regalia, complete with centrepiece bell (notably, perhaps a sign of its TV origins, there are no costuming requirements or humiliating rituals involved). Also in attendance is the man who inducted Andrew all those years ago, Chad Harmon (Dean Jagger, in the Frank Langella part). Before they go their separate ways, Harmon gives Patterson an envelope containing instructions from the Bell (we have already gathered that the society demands “Obedience. Absolute obedience. If and when called upon… you must comply. Whatever is asked of you, for that bill may become due tomorrow or in twenty years. Or never. It will be an act of fealty of loyalty to the Brotherhood of the Bell”).

Philip: You know, it just occurred to me that we’re part of the Establishment now.
Patterson: Not part. The Establishment.

At this point, Andrew represents a knowledgeable old hand about Bell matters. Indeed, there’s a rise and fall in his realisation of the Bell’s reach versus his naivety in believing he can actually do anything whatsoever to combat them. He confirms that, as part of the Bell, Philip can have “Anything a man could get with money, privilege and the best connections”, yet has told himself he’s taken no such favours: “Are you truly so ignorant of what the Bell has done for you?” Harmon asks later, before advising that Patterson’s father’s rise to the status of millionaire businessman who never lost a bid, contract or negotiation, and Patterson receiving every option, fellowship and post on his career path, were not a matter of good fortune or luck.

Harmon: You were given the assignment and the means. Do it Andrew. Do it. And be grateful more isn’t asked of you.

And yet, Patterson is essentially informing Philip that he is now a member of the Elite. In this aspect, the society both reflects and diverges from traditional masonry, since the favours of the club are acknowledged but only truly understood on a rarefied level. Patterson’s task is to ensure Dr Konstanin Horvathy (Eduard Franz) declines the position of Dean of the College of Linguistics offered to him, or Patterson will release a file to his country’s embassy naming all those who assisted his defection two years before. Patterson blanches at a blackmailing bid that could potentially result in more than thirty deaths (as it transpires, Horvathy will commit suicide; in the novel, the focus is on sexual blackmail, but this TV fare was perhaps limited in such scurrilousness. Hence it was nominated for two Primetime Emmys).

Patterson: I know the Brothers of the Bell will punish me. You see, they have unlimited powers.
Harry: Forgive me, Andy. I don’t think unlimited powers are so easily used these days. Not by governments or organisations.

He confronts Harmon, initially sympathetic but soon stressing that Patterson has no choice in the matter (“This discussion is becoming burdensome. You have already broken one of our rules by discussing this assignment with me”). So Patterson does what he is told and he is left conscience stricken by the consequences. While it is feasible that Patterson could delude himself that his membership will never touch him, it is much less so that he seems to think anything he can do will possibly be to any positive end. Again, there’s the argument that he knows this but will have to do it anyway because his conscience permits no other path. But we’re also shown his behaviour is increasingly paranoid and not entirely rational.

Harry: I never took you to see any man.
Patterson: You’re a damn liar, Harry.

Before long, he is reeling around, accusing everyone of being members of the Bell. However, they don’t need to be and more than likely are not; he goes for help from his father-in-law Harry (Maurice Evans), for example, who misleads him and then denies all knowledge. Harry is probably just doing as he’s told, and fearful of the consequences. All that’s necessary is that influence is placed upon such individuals, so they step in line with the coordinated effort. Karp ensures the paranoia is maintained at such a pitch that the degree of complicity of those involved is never entirely clear (Doctor Fielder – William Smithers – is revealed as innocent, having earlier been harangued by Patterson for letting him go from his job).

Patterson: You were given to me just like everything else. No, I have to give you back, and I don’t care. I just don’t. I don’t want you anymore.

This is perhaps most interesting on a personal level. Patterson tells wife Vivian (Rosemary Forsyth) about his guilt and membership, and notably and believably, her first response to his suggestion of going to the police is non-confrontational (“But you can’t do that. You said they had a rule about keeping silent”). In the course of events, he gives her a hard time for attempting to live her life as normal and is generally less than sympathetic, even after she has shot a neighbour she thinks is an intruder (“I paid. Do you want me to pay for the rest of my life?”) And yet, there is a lurking possibility that he is right, that his marriage to a much younger (by almost thirty years) wife isn’t really real at all. It’s at moments like this, and thanks to a suitably unsettling Jerry Goldsmith score, that The Brotherhood of the Bell takes on the air of a bona-fide horror movie, as if Patterson has strayed to the other side of the fearful mirror: of Rosemary’s Baby, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Stepford Wives.

Harmon: No Andy, you won’t be speaking louder and louder. In fact, I am certain we will be hearing less and less from you as time goes on.

Also entirely believably, in a manner not dissimilar to nation-state leaders who fail to toe the party line regarding plandemics and then mysteriously die, Patterson’s life begins unspooling as soon as he fights the power. He loses his job (“Oh, I think they’d dismiss 41 people to cover my dismissal”) and his father comes under investigation (“I’m up to my neck in accountants, and lawyers, and federal tax agents”). His wife leaves him, and then he’s fooled into going on a talk show where he is ritually humiliated (at a point where the light shed on his case had already dwindled).

Harmon: Well, any time 40,000 people can keep a secret for 22 years, I would consider that something of a miracle.

Along the way, Patterson’s sanity is impugned (“How many does it take for me to be committed?”), and any Federal interest in his case is averted (“Just what the hell did you tell Shephard?” he asks Harry; Agent Shephard is played by Dabney Coleman, whom I readily admit failing to recognise without his tache. Of course, it would be quite easy to believe a superior would lean on Shephard to drop the case anyway). Harmon offers the kind of soundbite that could easily be snatched from real world headlines (“Well, it must be terribly secret, because I wasn’t even aware I was a member”), while Vivian can’t believe he’s still attempting to tell his story: “Is there anyone left in the civilised world who hasn’t heard of the Bell?” (for which, one might substitute the Illuminati, or the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, or any readily debunkable conspiracy theory).

TV Show Audience Member: This organisation is well known to every black man, woman and child… This is the white power structure of the United Racial States of America.

The TV show appearance is perhaps the most telling part of the movie. Bart Harris (William Conrad, the narrator of so many actual TV shows’ introductions) persuades Patterson to appear, the latter having got cold feet, and then proceeds to slaughter him. He butters Patterson up with outrageous lies (“Because if you tell the truth, this TV lens will show it. But nothing shows up a phoney quicker either than the TV lens, professor”). Then, once Patterson has told his story, various “cranks” are brought on to couch Patterson’s views as just another crazy conspiracy. There’s Marc Hannibal decrying institutional racism, and Virginia Gilmore claiming Patterson is in fact Abraham Warsaw and “really a Jew”: “It’s an organisation of secret, international Jewry”.

Harris: Ding-a-ling!

Then, in a move that understandably has Patterson attempting to throttle Harris as one of the Brotherhood, Bart takes the piss by suggesting the Bell is actually “The underground Catholic organisation formed by the secret college of cardinals in Rome. Formed to seize political, economic and religious control of the United States of America”. Before “revealing” that the professor is an idiot “like all idiots who stumbled out of that stupid red box and proclaim conspiracy everywhere you look!

Harris: Do you dumb-dumbs really believe what I told you?

This is a carefully sculpted distinction, and contrasts with, say, Henry Makow; the movie explicitly suggests pinpointing a specific group or race as culpable for the enslavement of humanity – well, it’s not calling it that precisely – is to miss the point entirely; that kind of thinking is exactly what they want you to think (Makow, as a proponent of “the Phoenicians”, would be one of them, in those terms). Promulgate confusion and false targets. Misdirection is key. Indeed, one might wonder that Karp doesn’t take aim at Luciferians or Satanists; perhaps because he believes they’re too close to the truth. Primetime TV might also be a reason.

Patterson: Come with me and you’ll be free of the Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood of the Bell concludes in a very TV movie-ish place. In other words, it offers hope. It might be, with all the attention focussed on Patterson, that the Bell wouldn’t choose to arrange an accident (although, as noted above, that hasn’t stopped untimely demises of African leaders lately). They could very easily have him committed, though. The scene in the subway tunnel would, in an actual cinema release – see The Parallax View – surely have spelled Patterson’s freeze-frame demise. Instead, we leave with the idea that he has succeeded in persuading “someone else to stand up”, and there is some hope. Yeah, right.

In terms of the reach of the Bell, it might be tempting simply to swap in freemasonry as a whole, since it is an easy means of ensuring any member, as an isolated cog in the chain, will simply do their bit, no questions asked. But Karp is evidently offering more of a mix and match for the Bush clan’s Yale Skull and Bones Society (he offers no explicit requirement that they work through lower-level freemasonic ties in larger society either, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to construe this). The implication is clear, though: this is an elite lodge, the elite of the (known) elite. Yet even there, most members will remain oblivious of its reach through everyday life. Compartmentalisation is key to success.

Burns: Tell me about this secret society you belong to.

The Brotherhood of the Bell was shown as a CBS Thursday Night Movie. As noted it was – perhaps surprisingly; perhaps the Bell didn’t catch the screening, or perhaps they liked the deniability of the fictionalising publicity – Emmy nominated for writing and direction. Director Paul Wendkos worked mostly in TV but also dabbled in movies at this time (including Satanic body-swap movie The Mephisto Waltz). His work is first rate, enhanced by a superb unnerving Jerry Goldsmith score that makes you think you might be beaten over the head by insidious goings-on at any moment. David Karp adapted his novel 1952 The Brotherhood of Velvet previously for a 1958 Studio One episode.

Harmon: All I’m saying is that the existence of a super-secret organisation, the kind of white Anglo-Saxon mafia of rich influential men, is a bit lurid for my taste.

It’s a long time since I saw The Star Chamber, but I recall it being similarly in-over-your-head, if on a much more trad Hollywood (the group of judges are more vigilante than Illuminati, but they induce similarly paranoiac effects). As for The Skulls, and Rob Cohen’s claim “I knew a lot about the secret societies” of Harvard, one might perhaps believe him, given the public allegations against him. It’s no wonder Wendkos and Karp’s picture has gained a lot of traction in recent years, taken for a legitimate, unsensational examination of the circles within circles of secret societies; it’s refreshingly un-Hollywood. It’s a wonder The Brotherhood of the Bell got made at all.


Popular posts from this blog

I’m smarter than a beaver.

Prey (2022) (SPOILERS) If nothing else, I have to respect Dan Trachtenberg’s cynical pragmatism. How do I not only get a project off the ground, but fast-tracked as well? I know, a woke Predator movie! Woke Disney won’t be able to resist! And so, it comes to pass. Luckily for Prey , it gets to bypass cinemas and so the same sorry fate of Lightyear . Less fortunately, it’s a patience-testing snook cocking at historicity (or at least, assumed historicity), in which a young, pint-sized Comanche girl who wishes to hunt and fish – and doubtless shoot to boot – with the big boys gets to take on a Predator and make mincemeat of him. Well, of course , she does. She’s a girl, innit?

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993) (SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) (SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron ’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison. Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War , Infinity Wars I & II , Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok . It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions ( Iron Man II ), but there are points in Age of Ultron whe

If you ride like lightning, you're going to crash like thunder.

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) (SPOILERS) There’s something daringly perverse about the attempt to weave a serious-minded, generation-spanning saga from the hare-brained premise of The Place Beyond the Pines . When he learns he is a daddy, a fairground stunt biker turns bank robber in order to provide for his family. It’s the kind of “only-in-Hollywood” fantasy premise you might expect from a system that unleashed Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and Point Break on the world. But this is an indie-minded movie from the director of the acclaimed Blue Valentine ; it demands respect and earnest appraisal. Unfortunately it never recovers from the abject silliness of the set-up. The picture is littered with piecemeal characters and scenarios. There’s a hope that maybe the big themes will even out the rocky terrain but in the end it’s because of this overreaching ambition that the film ends up so undernourished. The inspiration for the movie

Death to Bill and Ted!

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) (SPOILERS) The game of how few sequels are actually better than the original is so well worn, it was old when Scream 2 made a major meta thing out of it (and it wasn’t). Bill & Ted Go to Hell , as Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was originally called, is one such, not that Excellent Adventure is anything to be sneezed at, but this one’s more confident, even more playful, more assured and more smartly stupid. And in Peter Hewitt it has a director with a much more overt and fittingly cartoonish style than the amiably pedestrian Stephen Herrick. Evil Bill : First, we totally kill Bill and Ted. Evil Ted : Then we take over their lives. My recollection of the picture’s general consensus was that it surpassed the sleeper hit original, but Rotten Tomatoes’ review aggregator suggests a less universal response. And, while it didn’t rock any oceans at the box office, Bogus Journey and Point Break did quite nicely for Keanu Reev

I think it’s pretty clear whose side the Lord’s on, Barrington.

Monte Carlo or Bust aka  Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969) (SPOILERS) Ken Annakin’s semi-sequel to Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines tends to be rather maligned, usually compared negatively to its more famous predecessor. Which makes me rather wonder if those expressing said opinion have ever taken the time to scrutinise them side by side. Or watch them back to back (which would be more sensible). Because Monte Carlo or Bust is by far the superior movie. Indeed, for all its imperfections and foibles (not least a performance from Tony Curtis requiring a taste for comic ham), I adore it. It’s probably the best wacky race movie there is, simply because each set of competitors, shamelessly exemplifying a different national stereotype (albeit there are two pairs of Brits, and a damsel in distress), are vibrant and cartoonish in the best sense. Albeit, it has to be admitted that, as far as said stereotypes go, Annakin’s home side win

This entire edifice you see around you, built on jute.

Jeeves and Wooster 3.3: Cyril and the Broadway Musical  (aka Introduction on Broadway) Well, that’s a relief. After a couple of middling episodes, the third season bounces right back, and that's despite Bertie continuing his transatlantic trip. Clive Exton once again plunders  Carry On, Jeeves  but this time blends it with a tale from  The Inimitable Jeeves  for the brightest spots, as Cyril Basington-Basington (a sublimely drippy Nicholas Hewetson) pursues his stage career against Aunt Agatha's wishes.

Just because you are a character doesn't mean that you have character.

Pulp Fiction (1994) (SPOILERS) From a UK perspective, Pulp Fiction ’s success seemed like a fait accompli; Reservoir Dogs had gone beyond the mere cult item it was Stateside and impacted mainstream culture itself (hard to believe now that it was once banned on home video); it was a case of Tarantino filling a gap in the market no one knew was there until he drew attention to it (and which quickly became over-saturated with pale imitators subsequently). Where his debut was a grower, Pulp Fiction hit the ground running, an instant critical and commercial success (it won the Palme d’Or four months before its release), only made cooler by being robbed of the Best Picture Oscar by Forrest Gump . And unlike some famously-cited should-have-beens, Tarantino’s masterpiece really did deserve it.

Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.

Paterson (2016) (SPOILERS) Spoiling a movie where nothing much happens is difficult, but I tend to put the tag on in a cautionary sense much of the time. Paterson is Jim Jarmusch at his most inert and ambient but also his most rewardingly meditative. Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver and modest poet living in Paterson, New Jersey, is a stoic in a fundamental sense, and if he has a character arc of any description, which he doesn’t really, it’s the realisation that is what he is. Jarmusch’s picture is absent major conflict or drama; the most significant episodes feature Paterson’s bus breaking down, the English bull terrier Marvin – whom Paterson doesn’t care for but girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) dotes on – destroying his book of poetry, and an altercation at the local bar involving a gun that turns out to be a water pistol. And Paterson takes it all in his stride, genial to the last, even the ruination of his most earnest, devoted work (the only disappoint

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.