The Covid-19 epidemic of 2020 will always be remembered as the medical crisis that abruptly changed daily life for everyone in the 21st century. It also sparked a renewed interest in movies dealing with deadly pandemics. Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011) starring Matt Damon and Outbreak (1995) with Dustin Hoffman were both box office successes during their initial releases but they suddenly began trending as highly popular titles again on streaming services everywhere. Terry Gilliam’s Oscar-nominated 12 Monkeys (1995) and The Andromeda Strain (1971), based on Michael Crichton’s novel, were also attracting first time and repeat viewers while other, equally worthy movies in the same genre have been forgotten or overlooked. One of these is 80,000 Suspects (1963), a compelling thriller from Val Guest, an often underrated British director.
Despite a title that indicates a mystery thriller, 80,000 Suspects (1963) is actually a genre collision of soap opera and medical drama set against the backdrop of Bath, England, on New Year’s Eve. The central focus is Dr. Stephen Monks (Richard Johnson), an overworked doctor looking forward to a long overdue vacation with his wife, Julie (Claire Bloom), a former nurse whose life as Mrs. Monks has been largely unfulfilled and empty. They appear headed toward a marital breakup, complicated by the doctor’s previous affair with a colleague’s wife, when the outbreak of smallpox in their community takes priority over everything else. Against her husband’s wishes, Julie volunteers to help contain the disease while her husband races against time to isolate the unidentified smallpox carrier.
The idea of a smallpox outbreak in 1963 was not that far-fetched as a premise. The last major smallpox eruption occurred in New York City in 1947 but was effectively thwarted by quick action from the medical community via mass vaccinations. Of the 12 people who caught the virus, only 2 died. (The 1950 film noir The Killer That Stalked New York was partially inspired by this incident). As recently as 1962, the disease reared up again in the city of Bradford, England where the carrier was suspected to have been a man from Pakistan who arrived on a flight to Heathrow Airport in London. Once again an epidemic was quickly contained with only six fatalities but that incident was enough to make 80,000 Suspects a timely film. And, as you probably know, survivors of smallpox are sometimes left blind by the virus and their bodies horribly scarred like something out of a horror film.
80,000 Suspects is directed in a semi-documentary style similar to Jigsaw (1962), a police manhunt thriller Val Guest directed the previous year, and he spends an equal amount of time mining drama from the procedure and execution of a massive quarantine plan geared to keep public panic to a minimum. By this point in his career, Guest was an expert at turning out this sort of taut, fast-paced B-movie and here he has the advantage of a top-notch cast and crew.
Claire Bloom, looking exceptionally radiant and alluring, and Richard Johnson as the couple in jeopardy are ably supported by a fine cast of British film industry character actors such as Cyril Cusack as a proactive minister and Kay Walsh, former wife of director David Lean, as a feisty head nurse. Other familiar faces from British cinema include Melvyn Johns (Dead of Night), Norman Bird (Cash on Demand) and Basil Dignam (I’m All Right, Jack). American-born actress Yolande Donlan also has a showy, flamboyant role as a dipsomaniac doctor’s wife who becomes a major health hazard.
Donlan, an American-born actress from New Jersey, made a few films for producer Hal Roach in the early stage of her career but beginning with Miss Pilgrim’s Progress in 1949, she would star in eight features for Guest, who would marry her in 1954 and remain with her until his death in 2006.
Both Richard Johnson and Claire Bloom would go on to star together in The Haunting, made the same year, and quickly graduate to bigger budgeted A-pictures. Johnson, a stage-trained actor who performed with John Gielgud’s repertory company, was on the cusp of becoming a major star in the mid-sixties but it never quite happened, despite impressive performances in The Pumpkin Eater (1964), the espionage thriller Operation Crossbow (1965) and the picaresque comedy The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders (1965) opposite Kim Novak, who became his wife briefly. His later career was a series of ups and downs but horror genre fans know him for such infamous cult titles as The Exorcist ripoff Beyond the Door (1974), Pete Walker’s The Comeback (1978) and Zombie (1979), directed by Lucio Fulci.
Bloom, who went on to star in such Oscar nominated fare as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) and Charly (1968), gave some of her best performances in the TV mini-series Brideshead Revisited (1981) and Shadowlands, the 1986 biopic about writer C.S. Lewis. At the time she was filming 80,000 Suspects, she was married to Rod Steiger and she implored the director to keep her husband off the set when she was filming because it made her self-conscious. Guest and his staff had to constantly figure out ways to entice Steiger away from the shoot with tours of local attractions and other pleasant diversions.
Based on the novel The Pillars of Midnight by Elleston Trevor, 80,000 Suspects benefits greatly from its Bath, England setting, strikingly photographed in the widescreen process by Arthur Grant, with musical accompaniment by Stanley Black, one of Great Britain’s most famous bandleaders and a prolific composer of movie scores.
Val Guest recalled the making of the film in an interview with Roy Fowler for The British Entertainment History Project in 1988. He said that 75 percent of the movie was shot in Bath and the rest at Pinewood Studios. “The day we started was the coldest temperature in living memory and there was snow everywhere and we had to say is this going to last because either I had to shoot in snow for three weeks or wait till it thaws. What am I going to do? So I called [executive producer] Earl St John about it, we start now, we kick off in snow, but send us however many trucks our location manager wants to be able to be put our own snow down, salts. We’ll have them standing by so we can duplicate, which is what we did. And…we had to get snow ploughs to where we were shooting.” Guest also had to supply a large number of braziers (portable heaters) for all the street scenes but kept them out of camera range. Despite this additional warmth, it was still bitterly cold and you’ll notice the breath of the actors often appears in these night scenes.
Guest is best known today for several memorable genre efforts, particularly in the science fiction field, such as The Quatermass Xperiment (1955, aka The Creeping Unknown), Quatermass 2 (1957, aka Enemy from Space), and The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961). His status as a cult movie director was further enhanced by his beatnik coffeehouse satire Expresso Bongo (1959) and the noir influenced crime thriller Hell Is a City (1960).
Compared to Contagion or Outbreak, 80,000 Suspects is less intense and horrific in the details but it is still a compelling entertainment and a handsomely mounted B-picture. The reviewer for Variety wrote, “the film has a vital authenticity…The documentary and the fictional elements do not entirely jell. But Guest juggles adroitly enough with the problems to keep interest alert.” A more recent review by David Vineyard of Mystery File states, “this is an attractive little film with a good cast and an intelligent script well written and directed by veteran Val Guest. It doesn’t hurt that it is based on a novel by Elleston Trevor (Trevor Dudley Smith), who was a fine suspense and adventure novelist as Trevor long before he created Quiller under his Adam Hall pseudonym.”
80,000 Suspects is not available on any format in the U.S. but it was released on DVD and Blu-ray in the U.K. in October 2015 by the British distributor Network. You might be able to still find a copy and screen it if you own an all-region DVD player. Turner Classic Movies has also shown it from time to time.
*This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
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