The Brotherhood of the Bell
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”.
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 ultimately culpable for the enslavement of humanity – well, it’s not calling it that precisely – is to miss the point; that kind of thinking is exactly what they want you to think (Miles Mathis, as a proponent of “the Phoenicians”, would be one of them, in those terms). Promulgate confusion and flawed 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 picture The Mephisto Waltz). His work is first rate, enhanced by the superbly unnerving Goldsmith score, one 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 tack (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 significant 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.