A review for a movie not on video disc. CineSavant bears down hard on a now-obscure UK thriller that proves a crossroads for several key themes of modern terror: Nazis, bacteriological warfare and paranoid conspiracies. ‘007’– associated writer Jack Whittingham scripted a tale that connects old-school espionage to visionary super-crimes against humanity, the thriller genre of ‘The Unthinkable.’ Who’s the threat? An innocuous little doctor with a horrendous secret background and a somewhat preposterous ability to go undetected as he kills to assume and protect a new identity. The techno-chiller was released in 1948 yet seems screamingly relevant now.
Savant Revival Screening Review
1948 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 98, 90 min. / The Devil’s Plot / Not On Home Video
Starring: Robert Beatty, Mervyn Johns, Nova Pilbeam, Margaretta Scott, Sybille Binder, Marie Lohr, Karel Stepanek, Alan Wheatley, Gladys Henson, John Salew, Anthony Eustrel, Peter Madden, Archie Duncan, Olive Sloane.
Cinematography: Moray Grant, James Wilson
Art Director: C. Wilfred Arnold
Film Editor: Joseph Sterling
Original Music: Hans May
Written by Jack Whittingham story by Guy Morgan
Produced by Louis H. Jackson
Directed by Paul L. Stein
Two years ago I reviewed Seven Days to Noon, which I had thought was the first post-war techno-terror thriller. Given a big budget and impressive resources, that film depicts the evacuation of all of central London because of an atomic extortion threat… in 1950. But two years earlier the company British National Films produced a thriller that posited the threat of germ warfare, in concrete terms, explaining how entire populations could be wiped out by a virulent disease. I’ve wanted to see Paul L. Stein’s Counterblast since 1985 when I first read about it in Hardy’s Science Fiction Encyclopedia. When I recorded a commentary for the bio-warfare thriller The Satan Bug I brought up some story similarities and coincidences based on plot synopses. Now that I’ve finally seen the film it’s clear that the similarities are much more than coincidental.
Counterblast — love that title — is a cloak and dagger tale about potential mass murder with a bacteriological weapon. It belongs to the short list of immediate postwar pictures positing nefarious doings by a surviving Nazi conspiracy, as depicted in the noir-ish likes of Edward Dmytryk’s Cornered, Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious, and to some degree Charles Vidor’s Gilda. Fritz Lang’s Cloak and Dagger was originally about a postwar Nazi atomic conspiracy. It would have crowned this category, if its epilogue (and reason for being) hadn’t been discarded by Warner Bros., possibly with a little coaxing from the government. All of these movies proposed the survival of Nazi conspirators, but by 1948 the politics had skewed in another direction, assigning most evil conspiracies to Communist villains.
Story author Guy Morgan could claim prestigious prior credits, including writing work on Anna Karenina (1948) and The Captive Heart (1946). Counterblast is a modest production without stars. Robert Beatty gets first billing but the main character is played by the capable Meryvn Johns (←), a smallish actor with a pleasant everyman quality. Fantasy fans know Johns best as the meek, confused architect trapped in a nightmare in the classic Dead of Night. He plays neither meek nor confused here, but personifies the New Postwar Attitude to doctors and scientists: Don’t trust them, because science is a threat.
A breakout occurs in an English POW camp still holding dangerous Nazis. The prime escapee is Dr. Bruckner (Mervyn Johns), a German bacteriologist who experimented with deadly diseases on helpless concentration camp prisoners. Slated to go on trial at Nuremberg, Bruckner is popularly known as the ‘Beast of Ravensbruck.’
He successfully contacts the still-active Nazi underground in London, which directs him to the ringleader Professor Inman (Karel Stepanek). Before his capture Bruckner successfully cultured a virulent bacteria he calls ‘Cardiac Plague.’ Inman now tells Bruckner that with luck, he can finish his nefarious work at the medical research station at Gillington, near Oxford. The goal is to isolate a vaccine that can be administered to Nazi sympathizers before letting loose the incredibly contagious Cardiac Plague. Bruckner already has palm-sized aerosol bombs capable of infecting 80% of the occupants of a confined area.
Through deception and murder Dr. Bruckner succeeds in assuming the identity of Dr. Forrester (Anthony Eustrel), a bacteriologist returning to work at Gillington from years spent in Australia. Welcomed and given his own lab, Bruckner/Forrester tells his new assistant Dr. Paul Rankin (Robert Beatty) that he’s working on a cure for the common cold. He upbraids Rankin for being too curious, and stays clear of the research station’s social life. Bruckner successfully receives graduate bacteriologist Tracy Hart (Nova Pilbeam), his new assistant through an arrangement Forrester had made with her father. Neither Tracy nor anyone at Gillington knows what the real Forrester looks like, but the local socialite Mrs. Coles (Marie Lohr) does — she’s an old friend. Bruckner manages to keep Mrs. Coles at arm’s length. He brings Tracy into his confidence by swearing her to secrecy about his work — she can’t even tell Paul that their mission is to isolate an inoculation antidote for a deadly bacteria… to protect England from a new kind of warfare.
Helping with Bruckner’s deception is Martha Lert (Sybille Binder), a Nazi cohort hired on as a maid. Lert answers the phone and the door to shield the fake Forrester. Paul Rankin is made suspicious by some circumstantial details that don’t add up: a heavy box Bruckner arrived with, a travel sticker for Ceylon, a set of golf clubs, and the fact that Bruckner asks for a chemical called Polison. He insists he uses Polison all the time but Rankin learns that it’s German-made and hasn’t been available since before the war. Tracy convinces Paul that his suspicions are unfounded; she’s more concerned with their budding romance. Then Bruckner reveals a crucial part of his plan to Tracy: he asks her to serve as a guinea pig for the anti-plague inoculation he’s formulated, to test its efficacy. Still keeping Bruckner’s secret, Tracy becomes convinced that allowing him to infect her with Cardiac Plague will be doing an important service to her country.
At first glance the most notable name on Counterblast’s credits is screenwriter Jack Whittingham, who had written the original story for 1939’s ‘fantastic’ espionage thriller Q Planes (Clouds over Europe). His later claims to fame include the excellent Pool of London and the fine Alexander Mackendrick show Mandy. But Whittingham is now notable mainly for collaborating with Sean McClory and Ian Fleming on a screenplay that eventually became Thunderball. A rights dispute ground on for half a century, and resulted in an odd Thunderball remake, Never Say Never Again.
Counterblast is fast and breezy and just barely believable. As an assassin-spy Dr. Bruckner is more effective than James Bond, mainly because he looks so damn harmless. Bruckner isn’t above bashing in skulls with an iron bookend or a golf club, and he carries an instant-kill lethal poison with him at all times. He plays people beautifully. He knows exactly how to speak to Dr. Forrester so as to not betray himself, and to collect information vital for his impersonation. When he meets Tracy he doesn’t yet know who she is: a relative of Forrester’s? A sweetheart? With Paul Rankin he’s authoritarian and slightly haughty. He has incredible luck not to be caught by Mrs. Coles at a social event. And Tracy and Rankin never ask the right questions to penetrate Bruckner’s secret.
Nowadays even a janitor couldn’t get a job without a background check. The screenplay is just smart enough that its highly unlikely events do not become intolerable. What’s more fantastic is Bruckner’s absolute certainty that he can get away with his wild impersonation. We realize that the Gillington establishment is not military or high-security, but it essentially has NO security, not even a photo of the real Dr. Forrester for comparison. Nobody’s even seen the man in a newspaper photo, and it is wildly convenient that Tracy is meeting him in person for the first time. Wouldn’t ‘everybody know everybody’ in UK microbiology of the day?
Adept storytelling minimizes these concerns. The only detail of Bruckner’s skullduggery that we miss is an explanation of how he gets rid of the corpse in his large steamer trunk. Perhaps the censors wanted to skip that particular bit of gruesomeness?
Mervyn Johns gets to play against type, that’s for sure. Conversing with a vicar on a train, Bruckner states that he’ll take Penicillin over Prayer any time. When the vicar deplores the horrors of The Beast of Ravensbruck, the Doctor opines that biological weapons are no more immoral than the Atom Bomb. That hypocrisy makes Bruckner an apologist for mass murder, a Nazi Monsieur Verdoux. When explaining the Cardiac Plague’s awesome killing potential he waxes manic, like a standard mad doctor. Dispatched to a nearby POW camp, Bruckner murders an ailing German that voices an anti-Nazi sentiment. Then the Doctor turns around and professes his love for Tracy, mistaking her misplaced faith in him for something else.
Bruckner ends up on the run just like Professor Willingdon in Seven Days to Noon. His fellow Nazis abandon him without an escape route, yet he defiantly proclaims his ‘new power’ — he alone holds the secret of the Plague antidote-inoculation. ↑ A scene in the Underground sums up Bruckner’s lethal malice. Grasping one of his ‘aerosol bomb’ capsules, he notes the women and babies that surround him and laughs out loud. Unlike Seven Days to Noon the cops don’t get near Bruckner — the resolution carries a twist that Rod Serling would admire.
Counterblast is heavy with dangerous ideas of futuristic horror. The insistent music cues of composer Hans May (Thunder Rock) help enforce the brisk pace. Stylistic irruptions are few, but notable. Tracy and Paul are given a ‘fun’ montage outing as their romance blooms (and distracts Paul from his investigation of Bruckner). When Bruckner panics in the Underground and loses self-control, the whole screen begins to swirl, a visual effect. Only then does it seem possible that this innocent-looking Human Enemy can be caught. It would have been helpful to hear Bruckner speak in German at least once — it’s difficult to picture the meek Mervyn Johns as a monster who conducted perverse medical experiments in a concentration camp.
The movie was released in Canada in 1950 but America saw it only in a micro-release in 1953, from the distributor Herbert Bregstein — his only title listed in the IMDB. Was it syndicated for Television use? Many equally minor releases routinely found their way to American TV.
A Satan Bug Connection?
This is just a personal observation, but I think it shines light on John Sturges’ 1965 feature The Satan Bug. That doomsday thriller concerns killer viruses developed by U.S. intelligence as potential weapons of mass destruction. The film presumes that such atrocious, dangerous bio agents were being created as part of military research, along with nerve agents, etc.. The basic premise of Satan Bug aligns closely with Counterblast. A deadly contagion has been artificially created. Before setting the contagion loose, villains want to immunize themselves, so as to survive and prevail while everyone else dies en masse. In the Counterblast conspiracy, core surviving Nazis intend to take over entire countries with their plague/antidote combo. In John Sturges’ movie, a somewhat illogical madman has a crazy plan to rule the world or destroy it and be the only living person alive.
The difference between the two movies is the scope of the threat. In 1948 the world was just trying to come to grips with evil on a scale as big as that of the Nazis, but by 1965 the stakes had jumped to the doomsday level — the crisis imperils the entire world. I think the changeover for this came in 1960’s The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, the first thriller to propose a kind of universal surveillance dystopia. But even more importantly, it’s the first to go full-apocalyptic on us. Everybody expects the evil genius Mabuse to be motivated by money or political power. No, his ambition is pure nihilism. He wants to destroy the world, to negate everything, to undo creation.
The Satan Bug was adapted from a thriller by Alistair Maclean under the pen name Ian Stuart. Because it takes place at an English research establishment it feels a lot like Counterblast. The main difference is the security angle. Counterblast’s civilian research center has no security presence at all. An imposter can run amuck because there’s no file on him for ID purposes, a notion that had to be laughable even in 1948. It’s rather fun seeing Bruckner’s clever tricks to avoid detection: Counterblast makes it looks as if stopping him is near- impossible. Thank heavens for the screenwriter’s sneaky twist, that finds a fitting finish for this unique villain.
The final Counterblast / Satan Bug connection is even more tenuous… maybe. When cut by ten minutes for its release in America, Counterblast was given a new ‘Satanic’ title, The Devil’s Plot. This would seem to be a good place for a Dana Carvey joke.
Seeing the bookwormish Dr. Bruckner behave as a brilliant arch-villain goes against expectations — he certainly overturns the image of perverse concentration camp ‘doctors.’ It’s quite a stretch for Mervyn Johns, especially in the scene where Bruckner declares his amorous intentions toward Tracy. But when he goes mad, shouting that he’s now all-powerful, Mervyn Johns is great — imagine Wally Cox throwing a hatred-tantrum like Claude Rains. Sci-fi has too many mad doctors that lamely proclaim their omnipotence, just in time for a hero to shoot them dead. But Bruckner’s threat has teeth. He’s bridge between comic book super-villains and modern terrorists in real life, with their overreaching super-crimes.
→ We know the cheerful Nova Pilbeam from Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much and Young and Innocent. She and first-billed Robert Beatty make a decent enough couple even if they fail miserably at stopping the Beastly Dr. Bruckner. Beatty’s face ought to be familiar to Sci-fi fans — he’s the head researcher at the moon base in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the one on the moonbus flight who shares sandwiches with Dr. Heywood Floyd.
← In this film Beatty’s loverboy-scientist Paul Rankin is prevented from seeing Tracy because she’s too sick to receive visitors, just as with Ingrid Bergman in Hitchcock’s Notorious. Unlike Cary Grant, Paul meekly lets Bruckner’s maid push him around.
In support we have Marie Lohr as the socialite who knows what Bruckner looks like; she played Henry Higgins’ mother in the original Pygmalion. Also effective is the unfamiliar Sybille Binder as the Nazi agent pretending to be Bruckner’s maid — she’s properly cold but not so officious as to arouse suspicion. In for a glorified bit is Margaretta Scott as Sister Johnnie Johnson, a secretary that exchanges words with Paul several times. Ms. Scott normally played much bigger roles; we know her from her major part in the classic Things to Come. If you search on the web you’ll see her in costume as both the warlord’s consort Roxana, and Oswald Cabal’s wife in 2036, Rowena.
Of all the Nazis only Karel Stepanek’s Professor Inman speaks with a German accent. He’s the one to openly talk conspiracy with Dr. Bruckner. The other enemy agents all appear to be English-born traitors… a subtle nod toward the politics that made Kevin Brownlow’s It Happened Here so startling.
Although I’m grateful to have seen Counterblast, CineSavant shies away from promoting graymarket discs. Hopefully some UK company has by now reasserted its rights. The images seen above are taken from the frankly terrible available scans; the entire prison escape scene that opens the film is too dark to even see what’s going on. I would have made a frame grab of the psychic whirlpool that covers Bruckner when he almost loses his composure on the Underground, but it was just too blurry. Note: The package cover shown up top is from an OOP graymarket release — and it is not recommended.
Counterblast is not the most exciting thriller of its kind: the good suspense early on is not sustained in the man-on-the-run chase finish. But in CineSavant’s Science Fiction-Centric view of reality this film is important, significant and essential. How did we get from the halfway- redeemable world of 1945, to today’s predicament of all-encompassing technological terror, where all we can do is wait for the next techno-outrage as outlined in one of these prophetic movies? Sci Fi’s ‘Imagination of Disaster’ from earlier decades is relevant because we can see it playing out in reality, all around us.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Not on Home Video rates:
Movie: Good and of Historical Importance
Reviewed: July 31, 2021
Text © Copyright 2021 Glenn Erickson