Britain’s first SF movie of the fifties, this well-filmed little 1953 thriller follows the secret testing of a supersonic aircraft. Good acting and tight direction helps to counterbalance a meandering melodrama that leaves the film unsure of itself. 5/10
The Net. 1953. UK. Directed by Anthony Asquith. Written by William Fairchild. Based on novel by John Pudney. Starring: James Donald, Phyllis Calvert, Herbert Lom, Noel Willman, Muriel Pavlow, Patric Doonan, Robert Beatty. Produced by Anthony Darnborough. IMDb: 5.6/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
Retitled Project M-7 for its US release in early 1954, as a bottom bill for Creature From the Black Lagoon, this British SF/aviation melodrama from 1953 is primarily remembered today for being directed by Anthony Asquith, famous for his successful literary adaptations. Based on a novel with the same name as the original British film title, the picture revolves around an international team of scientists developing a new faster-than-sound jet plane under utmost secrecy at a research facility outside a small coastal village in the UK. The film followed on the heels of David Lean’s successful 1952 movie The Sound Barrier, which had a similar premise. However, the novelty of the aircraft developed in The Net, complete with “nuclear motors”, makes The Net a fringe entry into British SF — a film genre that, for all intents and purposes, had been dead and buried since Alexander Korda’s and H.G. Wells’ expensive epic Things to Come (review) all but bankrupted London Films in 1936. Britain’s real return to the genre would come later in 1953, when the BBC launched its groundbreaking TV series The Quatermass Experiment (review), but The Net can perhaps be viewed as something of a false start.
For most of its running 85-minute time, The Net is a classic British chamber thriller, filmed almost entirely on set at Pinewood Studios, and almost exclusively indoors, with the centerpieces being the various offices at the research site, as well as the protagonist’s parlour and study. In the few instances we do see the scientists venture out into the quiet fishing village, they do so in front of matte paintings or rear projections. The story follows Prof. Michael Heathly (James Donald), the young genius behind the new plane, the M-7, and his quarrels with his superiors and colleagues about whether or not the M-7 is ready for a piloted test flight, or if the first test should be handled through remote control. Heathly is passionately of the opinion that the M-7 is ready, and that he, as the most qualified pilot, should be allowed to take her for a spin. However, his colleagues and superiors feel that Heathly shouldn’t risk his life needlessly, as the main goal of the research is to build the next generation aircraft, the M-8, capable of taking the first Briton into space. Tensions run high between Heathly and director Carrington (Maurice Denham), until the director suddenly dies in an “accident”, whereafter the field is open for the conflicting opinions of the scientists and security personnel at the research station to clash, a clash which leads to Heathly and his co-pilot Brian Jackson (Patric Doonan) to take off in the first manned test of the M-7. The test flight leads to an almost fatal accident because of Heathly’s reckless determination to test the aircraft to its limits. The pilots and their expensive piece of machinery is only saved in the nick of time, as ground control operator Alex Leon (Herbert Lom) manages to take remote control of the plane.
The scene is given som extra drama because of the fact that much of the film revolves around the personal lives of he scientists. Heathly is portrayed as the arrogant, single-minded scientist who neglects his wife Lydia (Phyllis Calvert), a fact that is noticed by the more laid-back and suave Alex Leon. Lydia and Alex have at this point become romantically entangled, and the audience is aware that Alex now has a motive for letting Heathly crash to the ground. However, Heathly’s near death experience strengthens the bond between the married couple, which Alex is cavalier about, and the further the film progresses, Alex proves to be the most sympathetic and loyal of the main characters. Other inter-personal drama throughout the film centers largely around co-pilot Brian and his “not-girlfriend”, French scientist Caroline Cartier (Muriel Pavlow, sporting a somewhat wobbly French accent), as Cartier feels Brian places his loyalty to Heathly above developing their “not-relationship”. It doesn’t help that Brian gets named director by their superior (Walter Fitzgerald), because he is inexperienced enough to be bossed around, and is ordered not to allow Heathly to undertake any more piloted test flights of the M-7. There’s also a somewhat irrelevant subplot involving Brian’s father, who is on his death bed. Finallty, there is the research station’s medical expert, the shifty Dr. Bord (Noel Willman), who is confirmed as the villain of the film during its 10 first minutes, as it is clear he is the one responsible for the director’s death, and the station’s Canadian chief of security, Maj. Sam Seagram (Robert Beatty), who spends the whole film running in circles without a clue of Bord’s espionage and sabotage.
The movie culminates in a suspenseful final 15-minute stretch, when Bord convinces Heathly to do one last, secret test flight during the night before Brian Jackson will officially forbid further piloted tests. But Bord’s true intentions, of course are to hijack the aircraft at gunpoint and force Heathly to take the M-7 “Eastward bound”.
British low-budget SF movies of the fifties had a decidedly different feel than the often juvenile, garishly and sometimes amateurishly produced American B-movies. They were most often modelled on the British cold war thriller: low-key, moody and character-driven. It is worth remembering that Britain never had McCarthyism. The UK had a strong labour movement with outspoken socialists in Parliament and a long tradition of socialist thinkers and authors. While politically and militarily at odds with the Soviet Union, in Britain there was also great outrage across the party spectrum over Senator Joe McCarthy’s crackdowns in America. Many American leftist filmmakers sought refuge in Britain in the early fifties, and overall, British cold war thrillers often refrained from portraying socialism as inherently evil. Rather, they often sought the roots of its double-crossing villains and communist spies in some individual moral flaw; greed, perversion, power hunger, Freudian shortcomings, etc. They eschewed the heavy-handed propagandism of US cold war fare and put less emphasis on square-jawed military heroes, and more on the soft-spoken intelligentsia. In The Net, Bord — the villain — is not so much painted as a communist than as a power-hungry egomaniac.
The Net has several things going for it. First of all, it has Anthony Asquith as director, known for such literary adaptations as Pygmalion (1938), The Browning Version (1951) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1952). In 1945 he also made the successful The Way to the Stars, a romantic drama set on a British air force base. In the silent era Asquith made his name as an innovative stylist for example with a romantic drama set entirely on a subway station in Underground (1928) and his flashback editing in the crime drama A Cottage on Dartmoor. Asquith directs The Net with a steady hand and injects both symbolism and playfulness into the film’s visual language. But the symbolism is never contrived or overbearing. Despite the heavy story, there’s a lightness to the proceedings, and its breezy pace and dynamic visuals makes it feel like shorter than its hour-and-a-half running time. Especially good is the above mentioned climax where Asquith reveals his past as a student of Soviet montage theory.
Despite the fact that much of The Net is set in nondescript offices, it also has a satisfying amount of well-filmed action set pieces involving the test flights of the M-7. Much of this is courtesy of the special effects team, Bryan Langley, Albert Whitlock and Bill Warrington, who have one Oscar, one nomination and a number of SF classics between them. The actual design of the plane reflects the fascination in Britain at the time with triangular-shaped supersonic jets, and it isn’t too far from actual planes being designed today. The sleek model is well designed, and I’ve seldom seen as good model animation in a film from the fifties as the handling of the plane in The Net. The shots from the cockpit are also credible enough to sustain suspense, and these sequences are greatly helped by the superb cross-editing between model, cockpit and ground crew by 2-time BAFTA nominee Frederick Wilson.
The film is also well acted, even if some of the players are more or less phoning in their performances. Lead James Donald carries the movie well, as the high-strung, unsympathetic lead scientist and pilot. Donald would gain international acclaim for his supporting roles in films like The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and The Great Escape (1963), and is known to genre fans for playing the lead in Quatermass and the Pit (1967). Phyllis Calvert is good as Lydia Heathly, while Muriel Pavlow is hampered by her tacked-on French accent and her one-dimensional character. Noel Willman as the villain is superb, balancing a jovial, friendly facade with his private icy menace. But the real standout performance of the movie comes from Herbert Lom, who is perhaps best known as the high-strung Commissioner Charles Dreyfus in the Pink Panther comedies starring Peter Sellers. Lom’s powerful charisma and nuanced, sympathetic performance makes him shine in every scene he is present in, going from the meddling seducer to one of the few truly moral characters in the film.
The biggest flaw of the film is William Fairchild’s script, adapted from John Pudney’s novel. I have not read the book, but according to Harry Dobermann at The Patrick Wymarck Boardroom the script follows the story fairly faithfully. Pudney was a wartime RAF officer, journalist, editor, poet and author, whose 1952 book The Net was quite successful at its time. This was his first book after facilitating Paul Brickhill’s hugely popular The Great Escape and and writing The Dam Busters, both of which were also adapted into successful movies. He based his research station in “Port Amberly” on the Atomic Energy Research Facility in Harwell, a small coastal time similar to the one in the film. According to Dobermann, “Pudney’s concern would appear to be the twin pressures of life in an isolated community where there is no escape from work and no-one can discuss their work. As one character says, ‘they’re living and working in a synthetic cell in the very midst of an old, steady civilisation.'” The net of the title seems to have several connotations. Dobermann writes: “Pudney gives a clue to the meaning of his title, with a 17th century epigram by John Northbrooke about hornets flying through a net that catches small flies. In other words, security measures stop accidental breaches but don’t always deter a sustained attack. The net of secrecy, where no-one can discuss their work, can also strain personal relations.”
Unfortunately, in its short running time, the film isn’t able to latch on to the personal stories and the oppressive atmosphere of secrecy that was apparently the main theme of the novel. Instead, the centerpieces become the aviation scenes, where the source of suspense are whether or not Heathly will bring the plane down safely, as it is hinted that Bord has somehow sabotaged the tests. But, unlike the book, the script gives away Bord as the villain in the very beginning, so this is not a whodunnit. Neither is there ever any real sabotage or mysterious murder to solve, so it’s not a howdunnit either. The espionage angle is downplayed, and the chief of security becomes a wholly redundant character, as he doesn’t make a single decision, solve a single mystery or detain a single person in the course of the entire movie. No-one is ever on to Bord, neither does he meet any challenges in carrying out his plans. So this becomes a mystery story without a mystery, and a character play without time to invest in the the character stories. Had it not been so well put together by director Asquith, cinematographer Desmond Dickinson, editor Wilson and the design and effects crews, The Net would fall rather flat.
The Net was negatively reviewed by Bosley Crowther at the New York Times upon its US release: “More than the aerial ‘sound barrier’ is broken to smithereens in the new British science-fiction thriller, Project M-7[…]. The limits of human credulity are shattered in several spots and the fine reputations of Anthony Asquith as a director and of Two Cities Films are perceptibly cracked.” While Crowther didn’t protest the SF material, he found the characters, their motivations and actions strained credulity, and lamented that the villain was revealed so early, which “rather vitiates the interest and eagerness that one might have in the later experimental try-outs of the phenomenally speedy plane”.
Today The Net has a mediocre 5.6/10 rating at IMDb and no Rotten Tomatoes consensus. AllMovie has no review, but gives it a positive 3/5 stars, as does TV Guide, writing: “Asquith does a fine job of depicting a group of men so caught up in what they are doing that they are oblivious to everything else. He keeps the tension mounting as the men are faced with the possibility that their project may fail.” Radio Times is more along the lines of Crowther, calling The Net “a tepid thriller” and writes that “you can hardly blame [Asquith] for plodding through John Pudney’s novel about aviation espionage with little enthusiasm. The surprisingly strong cast probably deserved better, and only the ever-dependable Herbert Lom manages to give a good account of himself.” Modern genre critics in the blogosphere, such as Howard Curl at Cagey Films, “Nighthawk” at Classic Sci-Fi Movies and John Grant at Noirish seem to have taken a liking to The Net, and their notions can be summed in in Mark Cole’s review at Rivets on the Poster: “It’s a lovely little film, made with great care, and well-worth seeing”.
I’m inclined to agree with Cole. Despite it scriptual flaws, The Net is a well-made, suspenseful little low-budget thriller with surprisingly good special effects, a strong cast and a good air of suspense. Unfortunately the film tries to tackle too many things at one time, leaving it oddly with a lack of clear direction, precariously balancing on the outskirts of several genres without really finding a clear dramatic thread.
William Fairchild later proved he could do better, as he went on to write and direct John and Julie (1955), which was nominated for the Golden Lion in Venice. In Hollywood he wrote the script for the hit musical Star! (1968), starring Julie Andrews, which was nominated for seven Oscars and four Golden Globes, and earned Fairchild a WGA Award for best written American musical.
A stage star since the early thirties, James Donald reportedly became an actor in order to escape his conservatively Presbyterian background. He appeared in both British and Hollywood films besides his successful stage career. Apart from the above mentioned The Great Escape and The Bridge on the River Kwai, Donald also played Vincent van Gogh’s brother Theo opposite Kirk Douglas in Lust for Life, and had a large role in The Vikings (1958), again opposite Kirk Douglas, and appeared a third time with Douglas in Cast a Giant Shadow (1966). He had large roles in The Pickwick Papers (1952), Beau Brummell (1954) and King Rat (1965). He more seldom played the lead, but he did so in his only other SF movie, Hammer’s Quatermass and the Pit (1967), even though he did not play the title character. A stalwart character actor, Donald received few accolades for his work, even if he was nominated for an Emmy for playing Prince Albert in the TV movie Victor Regina (1961).
Stage and movie star Phyllis Calvert was nominated for the best actress award at the German 1948 Bambi Awards, and for a BAFTA for best British actress in 1952. Muriel Pavlow was a dominant stage actress in Britain, and her movie career spanned over 70 years, as she made her debut in 1934 and made her last film in 2009 in the historical drama Glorious 39. Most all other actors in The Net are proven character actors both on stage and in film, with Herbert Lom and Maurice Denham perhaps the best known. Denham you might not know by name, but he is one of those actors that turns up in a plethora of movies and TV shows in supporting parts, that feels instantly recognisable, but you can’t recall where you’ve seen him before. Apart from a number of more more classy pictures, Denham also appeared in quite a lot of genre fare. Among his horror outings are Night of the Demon (1957), Torture Garden (1965) and Countess Dracula (1971). He also appeared in a few SF movies. He had a co-lead in the mutant film The Night Callers (1965), narrated Jules Verne’s Rocket to the Moon (1967) and had a prominent supporting role in the spy-fi comedy Some Girls Do, which, incidentally, also revolved around the development of a supersonic aircraft. Among his many TV appearances, he played Edgeworth / Azmael in the season finale of Doctor Who in 1984, opposite Colin Baker’s sixth Doctor, who made his debut in the four episodes featuring Denham. Unfortunately the story is considered to be one of the worst in the show’s long history.
Herbert Lom, I think, is one of the most underrated actors in cinema history. Born Herbert Charles Angelo Kuchačevič ze Schluderpacheru in the Czech republic, he made his film debut as a 20-year-old in 1937, but moved to the UK when the Nazis occupied the country in 1938. He studied drama in London, and despite an accent, he quickly managed to secure prominent roles in several movies, and even secured a Hollywood contract in the mid-forties, but was denied a working visa because of “political reasons”. He quickly got rid of his accent, and became known for “his precise, elegant enunciation of English”, according to a Telegraph obituary. He made a splash on stage playing the King of Siam in the musical The King and I in 1953, a production which ran for nearly 1,000 performances. His international breakthrough in film came with the legendary Ealing comedy The Ladykillers, in which he starred opposite Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers. The early sixties saw him in movies such as Spartacus, El Cid and Hammer’s adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera, where he played the title character in a rare starring role. And in 1964 he landed the role as Commissioner Dreyus in A Shot in the Dark, the second in a string of so-called Pink Panther comedies starring Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau, the first in a long line of Pink Panther movies. Hamming it up to the max, the role gave Lom a chance to showcase his comedic talent, but also typecast him. However, it was a chance to get away from his previous typecast as sinister villains (although Dreyfus did also have his villainous turns).
The early seventies saw Lom in a string of low-budget European horror films: He was first-billed in The Devil’s Mark (1970), playing witch hunter Udo Kier’s mentor, he was Professor van Helsing opposite Christopher Lee’s Dracula and Klaus Kinski’s Renfield in the Count Dracula (non-Hammer, 1970), appeared in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1971), AIP:s Murders in the Rue Morgue (1971), the cult film Asylum (1972), written by Robert Bloch, starred with Peter Cushing in And Now the Screaming Starts! (1973) and once again teamed up with Christopher Lee in Dark Places (1974). Lom’s SF output, sadly, wasn’t quite as prolific. But he did appear as Captain Nemo in the British adaptation of Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island (1964), in a bona fide space exploration mystery film Doppelgänger (1969), and last but not least had a prominent role opposite none other than Christopher Walken, Tom Skerritt and Martin Sheen in David Cronenberg’s Stephen King adaptation The Dead Zone (1983). Unfortunately, he also made the mistake of appearing in the universally panned 1985 adaptation of King Solomon’s Mines, as the sausage-eating German villain of the film, which earned him a Razzie nomination for worst supporting actor.
Editor Frederick Wilson was BAFTA nominated in 1966, and worked on such films as Caesar and Cleopatra (1945), starring Claude Rains and Vivien Leigh, the Gregory Peck/Sophia Loren vehicle Arabesque (1966), The Big Sleep (1978) and the gangster movie The Long Good Friday (1980). He also worked with director Michael Winner on three films starring Charles Bronson: the original The Mechanic (1972), which was remade with Jason Statham in 2011, Chato’s Land (1972) and The Stone Killer (1973). Apart from The Net, he edited the SF movies The Mysterious Island and The Big Game (1973).
Costume designer Julie Harris won an Oscar in 1966, a BAFTA in 1967 and was nominated for a Saturn Award in 1978 for her work on The Slipper and the Rose: The Story of Cinderella. She also designed the costumes for Mr. Drake’s Duck (1951, review) and Rollerball (1975). Composer Benjamin Frankel was nominated for a Golden Globe. The music in The Net was recorded by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
The Net. 1953. UK. Directed by Anthony Asquith. Written by William Fairchild. Based on the novel The Net by John Pudney. Starring: James Donald, Phyllis Calvert, Herbert Lom, Noel Willman, Muriel Pavlow, Patric Doonan, Robert Beatty, Walter Fitzgerald, Maurice Denham, Marjorie Fielding, Caven Watson, Herbert Lomas, Hal Osmond, Geoffrey Denton, Cyril Chamberlain, Marianne Stone, Tucker McGuire. Music: Benjamin Frankel. Cinematography: Desmond Dickinson. Editing: Frederick Wilson. Art direction: John Howell. Costume design: Julie Harris. Makeup artist: W.T. Partleton. Sound editor: Harry Miller. Special effects: Bryan Langley, Bill Warrington, Albert Whitlock. Produced by Anthony Darnborough for Two Cities Films.