Dr Steven Monks (Richard Johnson) and his wife Julie (Claire Bloom) are attending a New Year’s celebration in their home city of Bath, where they have jobs at the local hospital, or at least Steven does, for Julie has given up her nursing position recently on her husband’s insistence and this is causing some barely acknowledged friction between them. But a lot of that is down to the guilt he feels about his behaviour, for he has been unfaithful to her with Ruth Preston (Yolande Donlan) who is the wife of his colleague Dr Clifford Preston (Michael Goodliffe), and she manages to get him alone at the party where she jumps into the Roman baths away from the crowd. She is tipsy, and Steven knows he must get her home…
Which is all very well, but not perhaps what we settled down with 80,000 Suspects to watch, which was ostensibly a thriller about an epidemic in a small British city, filmed on location in Bath during the winter for extra chilly atmosphere. Although its writer, director and producer Val Guest had made a film the previous year, this was really a companion piece to his science fiction semi-classic The Day the Earth Caught Fire the year before that, which also corralled a group of worried Brits into managing a crisis. As many have pointed out, a smallpox outbreak in 1963 would be unlikely since everyone would have had their vaccinations and unless there was some new, mutant strain that was at least one thing the human race was safe from.
But smallpox it was, and besides it offered the chance for Guest to orchestrate plenty of well-deployed panic management as the public are lined up in their droves to have their innoculations, all to nip this spreading disease in the bud. The possibility that this might grow to apocalyptic proportions might have crossed the mind of other filmmakers, but here he appeared to have faith in the mechanics of containing a danger to the population, and the authorities operated with the utmost professionalism, which left the tension to be centred on a different drama, the marriage under pressure thanks to the antics of the flighty Ruth (Donlan was Guest’s wife at the time, and would more or less retire from the screen after this).
The problem there was the epidemic aspect was a lot more interesting than whether the doctor and his wife would get their marriage back on track, yet that was what took up much of the running time, tied in with the outbreak when Julie falls victim to the disease and Steven frets over whether she will survive or not, and if she doesn’t should he own up to sleeping with Ruth? It’s the sort of thing more at home in an episode of General Hospital than it was in a supposed thriller, and though this was one of those great-looking British films of this era that used the very distinctive Cinemascope widescreen frame in black and white, it wasn’t quite enough when the events playing out before us were difficult to engage with: basically we were asked to forget about the 80,000 and concentrate on two.
Sure, they were two vitally important to the containment of the contagion, but Guest’s screenplay was not providing the dependable cast with enough of interest to do; not that it was a bad idea as a whole, it was just that Johnson had to be short and bad tempered with everyone by way of personality, not the best person you’d want to spend the best part of two hours with, and Bloom spent most of the movie lying in bed with spots drawn on her face. Cyril Cusack added a religious dimension as a priest Steven feels the need to confide in, since he won’t be wanting to do so with his wife, nor Ruth for that matter, but again it was hard to care when there was a life or death situation unfolding outwith the hospital walls for you were more inclined to ask them to put aside the concerns of their personal lives until the danger was passed. That’s not to say Guest didn’t conjure up striking scenes every so often: the crucial to the plot car crash in the snow and fog was a strong sequence, for one, but dragging the largely absent Ruth into the plot for the conclusion was contrived rather than organic. Not bad, but you saw too well where it was going amiss. Music by Stanley Black.
[The British Film is the banner Network have released this under, with a clean print and a gallery as extra. There are also subtitles, which you don't often get with these releases.]