D: Val Guest / 109m
Cast: Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, Yolande Donlan, Cyril Cusack, Michael Goodliffe, Mervyn Johns, Kay Walsh, Norman Bird, Basil Dignam, Arthur Christiansen
It’s New Year’s Eve and all is not well between Dr Steven Monks (Johnson) and his wife, Julie (Bloom). After nine years their marriage is faltering. He has had an affair with a long-time friend, Ruth Preston (Donlan), the wife of one of his colleagues, Clifford (Goodliffe), but Julie only has vague suspicions and half-formed ideas as to why their marriage is in trouble. The discovery that a patient at the hospital where Steven works has smallpox, at first puts their problems to one side, but as more and more sufferers are found and the threat of an epidemic hangs over everyone, their relationship – and how they overcome their issues – takes on a greater importance for both of them. Julie contracts the virus, while at the same time, Ruth may or may not have left her husband. With the authorities stretched to the limit in their efforts to contain the outbreak, personal animosities become heightened, Steven and Julie find themselves making irrevocable decisions about their marriage, and one carrier threatens the safety of everyone…
Adapted from the novel, The Pillars of Midnight by Elleston Trevor, 80,000 Suspects is three movies rolled into one. There’s the hospital-based drama that unfolds as more and more smallpox sufferers are discovered and the Ministry of Health is brought in to save the day, there’s the relationship drama built around the problems of Steven and Julie, and there’s a late addition in the form of a race against time to find the last carrier, which makes it a thriller. All these elements bump against each other as the movie unfolds, and though they don’t always do so in an organic or believable way, the strength of the material overall ensures any rough transitions are smoothed over as quickly as possible. As each element is explored, the script also ensures that they’re not explored for too long before moving on or away to the next development in the story. This keeps the narrative ticking over effectively, and allows the characters – even the minor ones such as Johns’ over-anxious Ministry of Health coordinator – to stand out as credibly as possible. Working from his own script, director Val Guest adroitly keeps the focus where it’s needed, and elicits good performances from all concerned (though you could argue Johnson is a little stiff at times).
Shot in and around the town of Bath during the winter of early 1963 (which was particularly bad), the movie benefits from its location work, and the involvement of local residents in the scenes involving mass vaccination (watch out too for a cameo from Thirties star Graham Moffatt as a man with a fear of needles). This level of verisimilitude adds greatly to the no-frills approach adopted by Guest, and helps to make the potential scale of the epidemic that much more frightening. And for once, there aren’t any hidden agendas or characters using the outbreak for personal gain, just a group of people trying to do their best under difficult circumstances. The inter-relationships between the Monks’ and the Prestons does lead to a couple of soap opera-style moments, but these are forgivable in a movie that, by and large, could be mistaken at times as being a reconstruction of past events. Guest oversees it all with his usual skill, and in tandem with DoP Arthur Grant, uses the CinemaScope format to impressive effect, even though he relies on medium shots for most of the movie. Often gripping, this is a minor British classic, and easily due a revival.
Rating: 8/10 – an intelligent, yet modest drama with thriller leanings, 80,000 Suspects invests heavily in its characters and uses its smallpox outbreak as a way of exploring their faults and foibles, and in some depth; Bloom is terrific as the conflicted Julie, but Guest is the movies’s MVP, and if for nothing else, than for showing the fear and paranoia about the outbreak spreading out of control coming not from the public, but from the authorities trying to combat it.
NOTE: At present, there isn’t a trailer for 80,000 Suspects.