This book was one of the first of a new breed of medical thrillers dealing with threats at the microscopic scale, spawned by anxieties over germ warfare (and which can be said to have peaked with Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain). The time is the 1950s and the place is Kingsbourne. A young couple, a doctor and an ex-nurse, have to deal with marital stresses during an increasingly desperate effort to contain a deadly outbreak of smallpox, the resolution to which may lie in an old friend who threatens their marriage.
This review is offered for Todd Mason’s Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme at his fab blog, Sweet Freedom; and Bev’s Vintage Mystery Challenge.
“There were fourteen red flags on the map now. It looked like a field in Flanders”
Trevor Dudley-Smith (1920–1995) was a highly prolific author who published adventure stories and crime fiction under nearly a dozen bylines. Highly popular in his day, he is best-known today for the ‘Quiller’ series of espionage novels he wrote as Adam Hall (and which I previously profiled here), though he probably got his best reviews for some of the more mainstream efforts he published as by ‘Elleston Trevor’ such as The Flight of the Phoenix, which was filmed twice. The Pillars of Midnight was also filmed – as 80,000 Suspects – and deserves to be better known.
“Have you ever been in contact with anyone from the east of Suez?”
Steven and Julie Monks have been married for eleven years and have two little boys (who are currently away on holiday). Their marriage seems to have stalled, leading him a few years ago to have a one-night fling with Ruth Preston, the wife of a colleague at the hospital where he works. They are desperate for a holiday, but it is possible that he is looking to get away from his marriage too. On the day of their departure for Cornwall he is called for a consult at the hospital and he discovers that the patient is dying of smallpox. He still wants to go away on leave but Julie, who used to be a nurse, insists on staying in case volunteers are needed, leading to a bust up between the couple. As the health authorities move into action to discover who the original carrier was (it turns out to be the son of the first victim), they try to track all his movements from the previous three weeks and vaccinate the entire town. Then Julie is struck down by the virus, which brings into focus a surprising religious dimension in the shape of the understanding Father McGuire (who is not beyond a little low humour) and the unyielding Catholicism of Dr Preston. The thriller aspects, leading to an extended manhunt for the final carrier, is well handled, as are the little vignettes relating to the families of the victims, though the family drama at its centre can be a bit soapy at times. It is a melodrama, but an unusual one and the mystery and manhunt aspects are unusual and very well done, as always with this author.
“What have you been crying for?”
In adapting the book, Val Guest took the fictitious ‘Kingsbourne’ setting and changed it to Bath and shifted the time from Summer to Winter, the story now beginning on New Year’s Eve. Using the heightened newsreel semi-documentary style he had employed with great success since The Quatermass Xperiment back in 1955, the film always looks great thanks to the great CinemaScope lensing of Arthur Grant that artfully combines studio settings at Pinewood and plenty of location filming, giving it a strong, realistic feeling (the production may indeed have been spurred to action by a real smallpox outbreak in Bradford in 1962). The adaptation is extremely faithful to the novel, using most of its dialogue, characters and situations.
There is one major change however, with Ruth, an integral character who is referred to and heard on the phone but who we never actually meet, now appearing on screen and played by Yolande Donlan. She was Guest’s wife and often appeared in his films. On the whole, one wishes he hadn’t given her the role as she is rather miscast. Always adept at comedy, she is easy to accept as a ditsy dypso, driven to drink by a stuffy, decent, passionless husband but rather less successful as a tragic, Dior-encased sexual predator torn by deep passions (it doesn’t help that she looks so much older than Johnson, though in fact he was only seven years her junior).
“… the constables and the night-shift foremen and ambulance crews, the men at the switchboard in the telephone exchange and the watchmen … These were the pillars of midnight who held the world steady in the dark.”
The rest of the cast is first-rate, with Cyril Cusack very understated as Father McGuire, while Johnson and Claire Bloom make for a very attractive pair as the tormented leads who, until the very end, never truly seem at ease with each other (intriguingly, although Ruth is given as the main thorn in their side, in both the book and the film, we are not quite sure what malaise it is that so plagues them). Incidentally, this was the first of two film that Johnson and Bloom co-starred in that year, the other being Robert Wise’s superbly atmospheric The Haunting. The two would be reunited again in later years, first in a 1982 TV production of Cymbeline (Bloom was the Queen to his King) and then in the 1992 mini-series The Camomile Lawn as the belatedly united lovers Oliver and Sophy. The film does feel dated in lots of ways, from its emotional restraint (to contrast with the deadly scenario) to its plot contrivances which tie everything up very neatly (the rather flat-footed and pat closing coda is much too brief). But none the less, this is a film that didn’t want for ambition within a fairly commercial product and with its good cast is well worth a look.
Val Guest (1911-2006)
This was the last of an impressive run of films made by Val Guest. He would keep working successfully for another 20 years, both on film and on TV, but nothing he produced came close to the films he had made in the 8 years beginning with his breakthrough hit, The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), which led to two fine collaborations with writer Nigel Kneale, Quatermass II and The Abominable Snowman (both 1957). He then continued with the musical Expresso Bongo (1959), an adventurous refashioning of the hit stage play, while the controversial war film Yesterday’s Enemy (1959) and the hard-nosed Manchester policier, Hell is a City (1960) both starred Stanley Baker. His 1962 Brighton-based thriller Jigsaw is too little-known and review is coming to Fedora next month). His career probably peaked with the low-key SF masterpiece, The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961), which had a big impact on 80,000 Suspects. The two not only share much of the same technical crew and use the same understated, journalistic style (Arthur Christiansen plays a newspaper editor in both too), but also have a crucial scene in which the protagonists fall into each other’s arms after a ritual cleansing, both of which pushed at the barriers of censorship at the time but seem incredibly tame today.
DVD Availability: The film is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Network, having not been previously released on DVD. I’m very glad to be able to retire my old TV recording which was not in proper widescreen. The film is also available to rent online in the UK via the BFI Player. Various clips are also available to view at the TCM website. The Blu-ray looks really great with a brand new transfer supervised by the BFI and also has a substantial booklet with in-depth liner notes by Neil Sinyard who compares the book and the film very seriously and in-depth.
80,000 Suspects (1963)
Director: Val Guest
Producer: Val Guest
Screenplay: Val Guest
Cinematography: Arthur Grant
Art Direction: Geoffrey Tozer
Music: Stanley Black
Cast: Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, Yolande Donlan, Cyril Cusack, Michael Goodliffe, Mervyn Johns, Kay Walsh, Norman Bird, Basil Dignam, Arthur Christiansen
I submit this review for Bev Hankin’s 2015 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘crime other than murder’ category: