What a strange mix of ingredients The Net presents. At first glance this should be a prestigious ‘A’ feature with the distinguished director Anthony Asquith and a fine cast headed by Phyllis Calvert and James Donald and a strong supporting cast of character actors. It’s a Two Cities film and it’s made at Pinewood for Rank – but it’s only 86 minutes long. Why is it not included by Wikipedia in its ‘select list’ of Two Cities films? The answer probably lies in its mix of genres and the recognition that science fiction is the main genre with a spy thriller and romance also worked into the narrative.
Science fiction was generally a despised genre in the UK of the 1950s, though in retrospect certain films such as the Quatermass series (i.e. including TV serials) have since gained much respect. One of several useful American reviews of The Net (it was renamed Project M7 in the US and released in 1954 as the ‘B’ picture alongside The Creature from the Black Lagoon) suggests that it was the first UK science fiction film since The Shape of Things to Come (1936). I can’t think of another science fiction title during the 1940s. The Net was based on a novel by John Pudney, an intriguing figure who was known as a poet and writer and who, during the Second World War, joined the RAF and worked as a ‘creative writer’ at the Air Ministry. Several of the films that made use of his writing had themes relating to flying. Ironically he was also the father-in-law of the UK film studies pioneer Victor Perkins. Pudney stood as a Labour candidate in the 1945 General Election in a safe Tory seat and his political connections may have informed his writings in the early 1950s. His 1952 novel was adapted by William Fairchild who was a prolific screenwriter in the 1950s.
In the ten years from the end of the Second World War, the UK economy was under great strain as the country struggled to rebuild after wartime damage, repay American loans and deal with the end of Empire. The one hope for an industrial revival based on new technologies was the lead in aviation design, a more positive legacy of war. Unfortunately, both the Labour and Conservative parties were wedded to a Cold War policy that required the UK to have its own nuclear deterrent. The British film industry produced several films in the decade that focused on aviation and especially on aviation developments and nuclear research. In David Lean’s 1952 film The Sound Barrier an aircraft manufacturer attempts to develop a new jet fighter that will be operational at speeds over Mach 1, breaking the ‘sound barrier’. Lean’s film uses aircraft which are recognisable from the period and it was a box office hit. The Net imagines a much more advanced experimental programme which pushes it into science fiction. (The sound barrier had been ‘broken’ in 1947, but not by operational aircraft which were only just beginning to go into service in 1953.)
The experimental project is located on a coastal site somewhere in Southern England where Professor Heathley (James Donald) leads a team developing the M7 aircraft intending to fly beyond Mach 1 at high altitude. If successful the project is intended to lead to developments of a spacecraft. The ‘Net’ of the title is metaphorical possibly referring to the claustrophobia of the project personnel and to the restrictions placed on Heathley by the civil servant who is his effective manager on site (played by Maurice Denham). It may also refer to the idea of a ‘network’ of spies expected to be attempting to infiltrate the project. Robert Beatty plays the Project Security officer. Heathley plays a form of ‘mad professor’, who is completely immersed in his work. He plans to test the aircraft himself instead of using a professional test pilot. He also neglects his wife Lydia (Phyllis Calvert), who is pursued by the charming and eloquent Dr. Alex Leon (Herbert Lom). This and a second relationship between two younger members of the project team (played by Muriel Pavlow and Patric Doonan) make up the romance element.
I’m not very familiar with Anthony Asquith’s work and not a big fan of the films I have seen. He was the son of the Liberal Prime Minister H. H. Asquith and a celebrated director from the 1920s to the 1960s, but this film seems restricted by a low budget. Much of the film is set in the project offices, Heathley’s home or the control room for the flight tests. The interior scenes are quite ‘stagey’, but sometimes the night time scenes have more atmosphere. The M7 aircraft is a model that seems to have drawn on aspects of different new jet types in development at the time. Its fuselage and especially the nose section resembles the Handley Page Victor (which didn’t fly until December 1952) and the delta wing was a feature of various designs including the Avro Vulcan (which first flew in August 1952). These two bomber designs were both intended to deliver nuclear weapons in the future but they were much bigger aircraft than the M7 is intended to represent. The M7 design also incorporates engine intakes which look familiar from the design of the de Havilland Comet which was introduced as the world’s first commercial jet airliner in 1952. Bizarrely, the M7 is seen to be a seaplane for take-off and landing. I’m no aeronautical engineer but this sounds implausible. It does, however, fit in with the other aspects of the film, including the control room (which can take over the controls of the aircraft in flight) and the futuristic helmet and flying suit (see the above film still). I’m reminded of the boys’ comic paper of the 1950s, the Eagle and the adventures of ‘Dan Dare’.
The Net is a strange representation of issues that were certainly important in the early 1950s. I did find it entertaining and it wasn’t a struggle to watch but the budget restrictions and the implausibility of the plot in the context of 1952 were hard to take. I think Phyllis Calvert was wasted and I was egging her on to enjoy a fling with Herbert Lom. James Donald is fine in a role he seems quite suited to. The real weakness of the narrative is that the villain, the spy, is obvious from fairly early on. Whether this is the fault of the script, the direction or the performance of the actor concerned I couldn’t decide. I decided to watch The Net because in my research into 1953 film releases in the UK I noticed that Phyllis Calvert was on stage in Blackpool at roughly the same time this film was in cinemas. I think too that a tie-in cigarette advertisement in 1953 featured her role in the film. She was also appearing in Ealing’s Mandy (UK 1952) in second run cinemas. Perhaps because of this, I came to The Net with the wrong expectations? The Net was broadcast on Talking Pictures TV some time ago and I recently watched a recording. Talking Pictures TV has announced a new online service to be launched on December 1st. This is an exciting prospect and I’ll report on it in due course.
This is one of the titles that I clearly remember from the 1950s; this was partly due to one of my hobbies then being ‘aircraft spotting’. I remember it being completely engrossing but with a somewhat facile ending.
Anthony Asquith is a major British director: among his fine films are silent titles: ‘Pygmalion’ (1938): ‘The Way to the Stars’ (1945): ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ (1952). His work suffered partly from the lower production values that were common in British industry and also from the narrative conventions dominant.
Phyllis Calvert is indeed underused but British film struggled to present autonomous women in this period. You only have to look at the 1950s films of actors like Anna Eagle or Margaret Lockwood [both usually playing strong minded women] to see the problem.