Suspect (1960)

vt The Risk
UK / 78 minutes / bw / Charter, British Lion Dir & Pr: Roy Boulting, John Boulting Scr: Nigel Balchin, Jeffrey Dell, Roy Boulting Story: A Sort of Traitors (1949) by Nigel Balchin Cine: Max Greene Cast: Tony Britton, Virginia Maskell, Peter Cushing, Ian Bannen, Raymond Huntley, Thorley Walters, Donald Pleasence, Spike Milligan, Kenneth Griffith, Robert Bruce, Anthony Booth, Basil Dignam, Brian Oulton, Sam Kydd, Bruce Wightman, Ian Wilson, Murray Melvin, Geoffrey Bayldon, Andre Charise.

Suspect 1960 - 1 Lucy defends Arthur from mischievous chimp Phillips

Scientist Lucy Byrne (Virginia Maskell) protects dimwitted janitor Arthur (Spike Milligan) from skittish chimp Phillips (Phillips).

At the Haughton Research Laboratory in London, a team of scientists under Professor Sewell (Cushing) is coming close to developing a strain of superbugs that could eliminate lethal diseases by preying upon the germs that cause them. Sewell is keen to publish the research, but he’s suddenly called to the office of the Minister of Defence, Sir George Gatting (finely portrayed by Huntley, who had a real genius for playing seedy characters hiding under a veneer of respectability), and told he must keep the work secret in the interests of national security: those bugs could be turned against the UK by a hostile power. Although he’s resentful and tries to make waves by, for example, writing to the President of the Royal Society, Sewell concurs. Gatting sets a special agent of the security services, Prince (Walters), to work with sidekick Slater (Kydd) on making sure the scientists do indeed keep their peace. Prince soon recruits Dr. Frederick Shole (Griffith, in fine fettle), Sewell’s right-hand man, to be his mole within the lab.

Suspect 1960 - 2 Sewell, Shole, Marriott being sciency

Professor Sewell (Peter Cushing), Frederick Shole (Kenneth Griffith) and Bob Marriott (Tony Britton): Ooo, aren’t we sciency?

A hothead junior member of Sewell’s team, Bob Marriott (Britton), has difficulty toeing the official line. Through his assistant Lucy Byrne (Maskell) he meets Alan Andrews (Bannen); Alan was once her fiancé with ambitions to be a concert pianist before he went off to fight in Korea and came back having had both arms blown off by “friendly fire”; he now lives with her—not in the euphemistic sense but simply so she can tend to his every need. Alan sees immediately that Bob and Lucy are fonder of each other than either will admit, and realizes the time can’t be far off when they’ll want to marry, leaving him out of the picture.

Suspect 1960 - 3 Alan being a bastard (as usual) to Lucy

Alan (Ian Bannen) being a bastard (as usual) to Lucy (Virginia Maskell).

He thus formulates a fiendish plan, introducing his friend Bill Brown (Pleasence) to Bob in the guise of someone knowledgeable about publishing; Brown, aka Parsons, aka Evans, is in fact a spy, seemingly a mercenary willing to sell secrets to the highest bidder. According to Brown, there’s an organization called the International Scientific Exchange that enables scientists whose work has been muzzled by governments to disseminate it to a worldwide scientific audience. As soon as Bob has swallowed the bait, Alan is free to commit suicide, knowing that Bob is such a muggins he’ll assuredly be caught and tried for treason . . . a suitable punishment of Lucy for her “betrayal”.

Suspect 1960 - 5 Alan and 'Bill Brown' in t'pub

Alan (Ian Bannen) and ‘Bill Brown’ (Donald Pleasence) in discuss global revolution in t’pub, as one does.

Of course, things don’t go exactly according to plan . . .

This movie was apparently made at breakneck speed because the Boulting brothers had some paid-for studio time left over from another project, and thought it might be fun to see how quickly they could churn out a cheapy. In this context, the stellar cast they assembled is all the more astonishing. The soundtrack comprises selections for solo piano by Chopin and Scriabin, arranged and played by John Wilkes; quick, cheap and wonderfully effective. The haste shows in a few instances where sentences are oddly emphasized, as if the actors hadn’t quite understood their import, but in the main the movie, while modestly made, is of A-feature caliber. But see below.

Typically of Balchin’s work, there’s a good deal of intriguing philosophical consideration of the relations between science and society, and the responsibilities scientists have to that society. As an example of the kind of discussion the movie raises, when the politician Sir George Gatting is explaining the inadvisability of publishing the details of the new viral strains, his point about the dangers of the country’s enemies using the strains for germ warfare seems a perfectly valid one. Later on, though, Sir George tries to recruit/bribe Bob and Lucy into joining the team of a certain Dr. Childs (Dignam), bringing Sewell’s research with them; it’s plain that Childs is in charge of the UK government’s own germ warfare project. The moral question then becomes: Does the country that Sewell and the others have been ordered to protect by stifling their research in fact deserve to be protected, if it is prepared to behave as evilly as those hypothetical foes?

Suspect 1960 - 4 Genially scabrous politician Sir George Gatting

Genially scabrous politician Sir George Gatting (Raymond Huntley).

The screenplay is credited to Balchin, “with additional scenes and dialogue by” Jeffrey Dell and Roy Boulting. We have to guess that those additional scenes were the moments of supposed comic relief, presumably injected in hopes of leavening a screenplay that the Boultings found perhaps a bit heady for a mere filler. And so we have Spike Milligan as the laboratory’s witless janitor, Arthur—I’m a Milligan fan, but his role here is an embarrassment—and Walters as a secret service agent full of idiosyncracies that were doubtless intended to be hilarious but are in fact unspeakably tedious.

Suspect 1960 - 6 wacky secret agent Prince (with Shole)

Tiresomely wacky secret agent Prince (Thorley Walters) discusses matters with Shole (Kenneth Griffith).

Balchin’s own work on the screenplay has certainly dated in places. Here’s Sewell on female scientists:

“Women are all clockwatchers. Only thirty years to have their babies in, and anything that isn’t to do with having babies is a waste of time. That’s why they’re no good for science.”

Oh, yes, Madame Curie? Rosalind Franklin? Jocelyn Bell? A million others? And here’s Marriott on discovering that Lucy is devoting her life to her crippled ex-lover:

“It’s inexcusable. . . . Because a fit, useful member of society is being sacrificed for a person of, well, of no social value. . . . I know that sounds pretty foul.”

It does indeed. But such blemishes are easy to forgive when the dialogue is elsewhere so full of interesting and challenging lines. When Bob tries to impress upon Sewell their duty as scientists to get the details of their research out to the world, Sewell turns to him and, with all the world-weariness Peter Cushing could muster, replies:

“You’re young enough, Bob, to be sure that you’re right. I’m old enough to be sure of only one thing: that I can be wrong.”

  Suspect 1960 - 7 Our spies are everywhere (it's Ian Wilson)

Our spies are everywhere . . . and one of them is Ian Wilson.

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On Amazon.com: Suspect DVD

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5 thoughts on “Suspect (1960)

  1. Now this one I have seen and know well. Great work for a quickie, with as you note an astonishing cast and the famed Boulting bothers at the helm. Ian Bannen, Donald Pleasance, Peter Cushing all fabulous. Stupendous review John!

    • Yes, it’s one of those that’s a mixture of good and mediocre, and luckily the good is good enough to outweigh the mediocre! I really could have lost the Milligan bits, though, and much of the Walters contribution. Good to see Maskell delivering such a fine turn, too: a favorite actress of mine back in the day; it was only when I rewatched this movie a few months ago that (out-of-touch dimwit as I am) I learnt about her tragic early death.

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