“Before The Plane Makers….”
A Review in Fabulous SPOILERVISION by Harry Dobermann
The Net (1953)
Noel Willman and James Donald wear experimental pressure suits in the control cabin of the M7 supersonic jet
Released seven months after David Lean's The Sound Barrier, the quest for supersonic flight is taken to the next level in The Net. Professor Heathley (James Donald - Quatermass and the Pit) leads a project at the Port Amberley research establishment to develop an atomic powered, faster-than-sound jet. Heathley sees this as just an intermediate stage before space travel. Heathley wants to pilot the test flight himself, but the project Director (Maurice Denham) insists that the jet should fly under the ground control of Alex Leon (Herbert Lom). When the Director dies under suspicious circumstances, security chief Sam Seagram (Robert Beatty) must decide if it's an accident or enemy action.
Directed by Anthony Asquith, The Net is based on a 1952 novel by poet and journalist John Pudney, whose poem For Johnny ("Do not despair, for Johnny-Head-In-Air..") had featured significantly in Asquith's 1945 movie The Way To The Stars (to the extent that it inspired the film's US title Johnny In The Clouds). Pudney had been a wartime RAF intelligence officer, and editor of Odhams News Review until 1950, which may have given him a dual insight into the security leaks at Britain's post war Atomic Energy Establishment. In a note at the beginning of The Net Pudney apologises to Britain's scientists and research workers, assuring them that, "Real people and actual projects are necessarily excluded from this otherwise true tale."
As in The Plane Makers, both the book and the film deal principally with the tensions between the project workers, but the film does feature the M7 jet flying in several scenes. Launched, like a seaplane from water, the jet roars over the base, scattering the surrounding birds before increasing to Mach 1 and the sound barrier. The special effects are credited to Pinewood's head of visual effects Bill Warrington, Bryan Langley and Albert Whitlock (you can read more about them here http://nzpetesmatteshot.blogspot.com/2014/03/movie-magic-at-rank-organisation.html ). It appears that a combination of techniques were used to bring the atomic jet to life: a sleek model (designed or at least supervised by Warrington, who won an Oscar for The Guns of Navarone), Matte paintings by Whitlock integrating the imagined base with live action, and blue screen travelling mattes by Langley.
The shots of the M7 in flight seem both primitive and ahead-of-their time. Obviously fake but impressionistic with visible trails depicting the fast-than-sound flight.The design of the M7 is remarkable in that it's not too different from supersonic jets being trialled in the 21st century.
William Fairchild's script is generally faithful to Pudney's novel but makes some changes in the interests of condensing a 300 page book down to an 80 minute movie. There is also an interesting bit of personalisation. In the novel, Heathley - like Inspector Morse is referred to only by his last name, even by his wife. In the movie, James Donald's character is called Michael and the call-sign of the M7 jet becomes "Mike Seven". emphasising his obsession with the project.
Pudney makes reference early in the novel to atom scientist Bruno Pontecorvo, who defected to the Soviet Union in 1950, and Klaus Fuchs, convicted of spying in the same year. This suggests that Pudney's model for Port Amberley was the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell, set (like Port Amberley) in an isolated agricultural community. 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."
Pudney gives a clue to the meaning of his title, The Net 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. In the movie, the opening minutes show James Donald referring to the bureacratic constraints imposed by the Director, holding his hand up to the fence of the research establishment as he tells Maurice Denham, "You keep me in a nice strong net. One day you'll find all you've got is an obsolete machine and a fossilised scientist."
The emotional net also stifles Heathley's wife Lydia (Phyllis Calvert). Pudney's novel explores Lydia's frustration with "the withdrawn, secretive element inf Heathley's character which was so obsessed with power that it made him say he could not afford to worry.". The book covers this in much greater depth than the movie, opening with Lydia contemplating adultery - at first just generally and then responding in particular to the flirtation of Alex Leon (Herbert Lom). "Her passion for Alex cried out for atonement or fulfilment...(the affair) had been a liberation in itself (from) the prison of which Heathley seemed still so unaware."
In both the book and the film, Heathley's desire to pilot the jet on its test flight is opposed by the deputy Director (just, the Director in the movie). Heathley regards the M7 as just a stepping stone to the M8 which will taken them into space, and is frustrated by the slow and steady methods of his supervisor. When the Director is killed, Heathley misrepresents their last conversation, claiming that he was coming round to Heathley's point of view and pushes through the manned test flight.
Following the prologue between Heathley and the Director, Fairchild makes a similarly speedy and effective introduction of the cast during a party thrown by Lydia. The multi-national scientists and technicians are united in a session singing, Ten Green Bottles led by Dennis Bord (Noel Willman). Fairchild's use of this song is ironic, not just because it allows the Director (Maurice Denham)to underline the risk of letting his project leader make a test flight (prodding him in the chest and repeating, "If one green bottle, should accidentally fall...") but because it anticipates the fate of the director himself.
The introduction of Dennis Bord (Noel Willman) marks the most significant change between book and film. In Pudney's novel, Dennis Bord is the security chief and Seagram is a visiting liaison from Washington. In the movie, Seagram is the Canadian security chief, while Bord becomes a medical doctor responsible for the pressure suits used by the pilots of the M7. In both book and film, Bord is a traitor. Pudney allows the reader to discover this gradually, whereas the film audience knows there is something odd about Bord within the first ten minutes. The Director confides to Bord that he's not going to let Heathley fly the M7, hoping the Doctor can watch Heathley for signs of strain. We see Bord spinning an ornamental globe as the director's words echo in his head. He spins the globe faster and faster as Benjamin Frankel's initially twinkling music grows in intensity and merges with the roar of an engine test. Soon afterwards we learn that the director has been injured in a fall. This is the same sequence of events as in the novel, but because Fairchild has made Bord a doctor, the deputy's death becomes less ambiguous. In the medical centre, Bord prepares to administer a life-saving injection. But then Bord squirts the syringe of adrenalin into a cloth and then holds a mirror over the director's mouth. We see Bord's cold eyes reflected in the mirror, as the director's breath clouds the glass and then dies away. Bord calls the security officer, Seagram (Robert Beatty) and tells him the director's heart, "didn't respond to the injection."
In the novel, Bord runs a small spy network, briefing one agent over a game of billiards at the village Constitutional Club and receiving messages in matchboxes from "Jose, one of the Oceanic bartenders, under the impression that he was working for the British secret service." In the movie, Fairchild abbreviates this to a scene of Bord calling for a drink at the village pub. Bord puts his newspaper on the bar and glances significantly at a pipe-smoking gent who says, "'Scuse me, you've left your paper. Mind if I read it?" and pockets the newspaper.
In both novel and film, Bord's ultimate aim is to take both Heathley and the M7 over the Iron Curtain. Pudney says that, "Bord was not in his own eyes a traitor.In order to betray, a man must have allegiances, and he lacked them all. Not only the conventional loyalties to King and country, to kith and kin, but the deeper allegiances to God, to people, to a way of life. Dennis Bord had..stripped himself of all of these..War service had tempered his courage, educated his sense of violence and affirmed his nihilistic detachment from people and situations."."
By the time Pudney's novel was published, the diplomats Burgess and Maclean had already defected to Russia, although MI6 traitor Kim Philby had not yet been exposed. Pudney's characterisation of his 'hornet' Bord as being in charge of security is therefore more reflective of the times. So too is the character of Sam Seagram, the Texan called in from Washington to scrutize British procedures. By 1951, the 'special relationship' between America and Britain saw the United Kingdom as the aged, infirm, impoverished and slightly dotty parent that needed careful supervison.
By changing Bord to a doctor, Fairchild removes these disquieting undertones of national humiliation. Instead of being an intimidating security officer, Bord is a genial doctor.A trusted member of the project design team, he also goes out into the community, treating the ailing father of technician Brian Jackson. Noel Willman, who would later play Doctor Ravna in Hammer's Kiss of the Vampire presents Bord with a superficial charm which occasionally drops to reveal the coldness beneath.In both book and film, Bord exploits betrayals by Heathley's wife Lydia, and assistant Brian Jackson to push Heathley towards a crisis point.
In the role of Lydia Heathley, Phyllis Calvert was re-united with Anthony Asquith who had directed her onstage opposite Jack Watling in Terence Rattigan's 1942 play Flare Path*. Calvert's character had been at the centre of a love triangle, and since she often played the more boring 'good girl' parts in movies, the role of Lydia might have been an attempt to revisit that stage success.
In both book and film, Lydia Heathley (Phyllis Calvert)spends an afternoon on nearby Flimby Pier with Alex Leon (Herbert Lom) where they share a kiss. Pudney's novel goes into much more depth about Lydia's resulting guilt whereas in the movie both Alex and Lydia realise it was a bad idea that shouldn't be taken much further. Pudney's novel portrays Alex a former concentration camp inmate who lives for the moment. "If Alex appeared too anxious to be considered an ordinary man of the world, it might well have been because he had emerged from unspeakable darknesses of body and mind, fighting every inch of the way.". Herbert Lom portrays Alex as likeable and Fairchild invents a tense scene in which he clearly thinks Heathley is about to confront him over his liaison with Lydia, only to realise that Heathley is more concerned that Brian Jackson has agreed to copilot the jet out of misplaced loyalty. Lom's evident relief justifies the truncated nature of his romance with Lydia.
In the novel, Alex has a sister, Ilse who has also "been in the hands of the secret police before", leading her to fear Bord with his penetrating hypnotic eyes. Pudney depicts Ilse as a strong contrast to the vapoury Anglo Saxon Lydia. In a conference, he picks out Ilse, "whose warm colouring defied the tobacco haze." Ilse is suspected of treachery by both Heathley and Seagram, but it eventually transpires that her mysterious behaviour is due to a manipulative relationship with the late deputy Director. Just as Lydia feels Alex has "let her out of her prison", the Deputy thinks Ilse has had a transformative effect on his life. "The deputy made a specialty of hating women. I looked on that as a challenge. He had been unhappily married twice. I felt sorry for him. That was what he wanted." We learn that on the night of his accident, the heavy-drinking deputy Director had asked Ilse to go away with him, saying she was the only person who could stop him drinking. Ilse didn't want to be his protector and had walked out when the deputy started to get abusive. That was just before his fatal accident, meaning she was the last person to see him.
Not surprisingly, this entire sub-plot disappears from the movie and Ilse becomes Caroline Cartier (Muriel Pavlow - Reach for The Sky) - a French scientist unrelated to Alex Leon. Caroline retains Ilse's stronger characteristics, standing up to Heathley when he proposes a manned flight of the M7, but loses the femme fatale qualities. Like Ilse, Caroline is the love interest for Brian Jackson (Patric Doonan), a local scholarship boy from the village who is Heathley's protege and second-in-command. It is Brian who co-pilots the M7 on the first test-flight - a test that almost proves fatal when Heathley blacks out due to G forces while turning at twice the speed of sound. Being younger and quicker to recover, Brian is able to flick on the switch which accepts the ground-control signal and save the jet from crashing.
Brian Jackson (Patric Doonan) and Professor Heathley (James Donald) on the first test flight of the M7
Brian represents solid English values. Fairchild's script reproduces a scene from the novel in which Brian's father lies dying in his bedroom in the village. He expresses a wish to be taken downstairs before he dies, because the stairs are too narrow for a coffin. "I don't want to go out in a box through the window like my dad, with a rickyard rope and tackle." There's an almost Thomas Hardy overtone to George Jackson's wish to die downstairs. He dies, just after moving downstairs. In the movie we're told that old George was proud to have walked downstairs by himself. In both book and film, George Jackson dies while his son is co-piloting the M7 jet.
Pudney takes an ambiguous approach to the stolid Englishman. He notes that the security guards, "were simple, slightly underpaid, family men of great integrity. They might have served as sentries at Agincourt, at Bannockburn, at Waterloo or at Caen. They looked for a recognised enemy or an overt act. History was on their side, after all" Similarly Lydia's mother deprecates Major Seagram's theory that "fatal illusions" may cut through the net of security. "I was brought up in a world in which you sacked a man who was a cad, but you put a traitor up against a wall and shot him whether he had illusions or not.And what was the result? I can recall precious few traitors" But when Sir Charles Cruddock (Walter Fitzgerald ) appoints Brian as the new deputy director he does so because he knows Brian will be easy to control."He'll take instructions from me and I'll trust him to carry out our policy." Brian's acceptance and the ban of manned tests of the M7 is the final 'betrayal' which Bord uses to provoke Heathley.
Pudney shows Bord manipulating Heathley. 'The eyes focussed with prophetic fervour, "A man like yourself bears responsibility for millions of human beings. Your power rises above such thing. It is the duty of a man like yourself to consider your potential not just in terms of..a country which is too small for your ideas."'. Heathley is swayed by the argument, reflecting that 'It was almost as if some part of himself had used the lips of another man to form the words which he had never dared to speak."
In the movie, these 'fatal illusions' are removed from Donald's character. Bord - as a member of the design team - agrees to help Heathley take the M7 on an unathorised test flight but does not reveal himself until they have successfully completed the test manouevres. Bord tells Heathley to fly the jet East saying,"We'll show those little people at Port Amberley they can't control people like us. I've been promised complete control from now on. We'll make the decisions. Where we're going, power will be ours!"
Throughout the movie, Bord has appeared obsessed with Heathley and his final speech might open the way for the inevitable speculation of gay undertones. Fairchild and Asquith encourage this speculation with the earlier scene in which Alex Leon thinks Heathley has discovered his affair with Lydia. The professor surprises him by saying that he's feeling guilty about his exploitation of Brian Jackson's loyalty, which is "a kind of love!" Is Heathley's indifference to Lydia really caused by his obsession with the M7 or his fascination with the younger man? Does Bord want to fly Heathley and the M7 somewhere over the rainbow? John Pudney notes that Bord's,"tastes in personal relationships, when they were not conventional, were coarse and a little dangerous." and he remarks upon "The nature which had lavished lust on him, but denied him love." That certainly sounds like a pre-Wolfenden Report nod towards Bord's sexuality. The establishment view was that homosexuals were a security risk because they were open to blackmail (mainly because of society and the law's attitudes) but Pudney seems to see Bord's nihilism as rooted in his sexuality.
In the movie, Bord pulls a gun on Heathley when he refuses to fly east. Heathley pulls an aerobatic manouevre that forces Bord to drop the gun and then as Bord is reaching for the weapon, his oxygen pipe comes unfastened. Willman's face distorts in horror as he realises what's happened and his terrified shrieks echo over the inntercome in the control room before he suffocates. In the novel, Pudney depicts the end as a struggle with Satan. Heathley realises for the first time that Bord has been setting him up when he admits to killing the Deputy. "There's only one power in the world. The controlled power of humanity, controlled by men of destiny like you and me." At that point, Lydia's voice comes over the intercom telling Heathley she loves him and not to believe any rumours he's heard about her silly flirtation, "in the eyes of God I remained faithful." Bord threatens to kill Heathley who realises that he was crossing,"the cruellest frontier of all - and beyond it the desert land without God, withoout love, without honour, where men killed you expediently and spoke casually of it." Heathley tells Bord he's going to comply and then pulls the pressure line of his hood away from the panel which feeds it. "The shining plastic of the hood sucked inward and wrapped itself around Bord's face as the pressure stove it in, suffocating him...the man had died mercifully and quickly in his moment of imagined triumph."
Robert Beatty, Muriel Pavlow, Walter Fitzgerald, Herbert Lom and Noel Willman in the control room during the first test flight
In the novel, Heathley calmly lands the jet in "a taut sulky sea", throwing Bord's body into the water, "He would face the music, but first he would dispose of the Devil." Fairchild's script for the movie delivers a James Bond style coda. Bord's corpse falls across Heathley sending the jet into a death dive. Heathley pushes the body aside and regains control but once again G Forces overcome him. In the movie, it is Lydia calling over the intercom which rouses Heathley long enough for him to pull the jet into a stable pattern and bring the plane home.
The Net follows on from The Sound Barrier but with its science fiction overtones also anticipates the Quatermass films - particularly Quatermass II (1957) where the complex at Winnerden Flats seems like an extension of Port Amberley. There are also echoes of The Net in Doppelganger , not just because of the casting of Herbert Lom, but also because of the climactic scene with astronaut Roy Thinnes trying to establish the ground-control signal.
It's probably fair to say that The Net (both book and film ) is a story about research and security that happens to feature a jet plane, rather than being about the aviation industry. Nevertheless, it does foreshadow The Plane Makers - particularly the third series with the introduction of David Corbett and the development of The Predator.
*Flare Path was the basis for Asquith's movie The Way To The Stars, which had made great use of John Pudney's poem 'For Johnny'. Rattigan teamed up with David Lean to script, The Sound Barrier
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