Thursday, August 7, 2014

Counterspy (Bernard L. Schubert Productions, 1958)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

When Charles came home after a long work shift we stayed awake long enough to watch a rather intriguing but ultimately unsatisfying 1958 half-hour TV movie called Counterspy, a pilot episode for a show that ultimately didn’t become a series — and one can see why. It begins with one of those sententious Cold War-era forewords saying that with the enemies of the U.S. and freedom itself ever vigilant, our ability to survive as a free and democratic nation-state depended on the heroic efforts of the U.S. Counterspy Intelligence Service (or whatever it was called in the movie, scripted by Jack Anson Finke and directed by the usually reliable Ralph Francis Murphy), and in particular on two agents thereof: David Harding (Brad Megowan) and Keller (Brad Johnson). This story takes place in England and begins at the beach resort town of Brighton (probably best known to U.S. moviegoers as the locale for the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film The Gay Divorcée), where a dead man in a deep-sea diving suit washes up on the beach (and none of the other beachgoers seem to notice). The rest of the episode is a flashback detailing how that happened: a Russian naval vessel captained by Admiral Gilhs (Gerald Milton, whose idea of a Russian accent is as shaky as writer Finke’s idea of a Russian name) manages to make it into Portsmouth harbor without the usual assistance of the on-site local pilot. Thinking the Russians have developed some technological breakthrough which allows them to navigate without local assistance — which they have; on board is Dr. Jasny (John Mylong from the cast of Robot Monster, whose idea of a “Russian” accent is to use the “German” one that probably got him jobs as World War II villains), who’s invented a system using TV cameras to give a ship’s captain multiple images of where he is and where he’s going. Essentially he’s invented GPS about four decades early.

Our counterspies hire an Irish diver from World War II, Terrence “Finnie” Finn (Robert McQueeney), who’s bitter about how he was simply dismissed from the British navy after the war and who’s living in poverty with his wife Nora (Phyllis Stanley), to descend in the Russian ship’s vicinity with a camera and photograph the bottom of its hull to try to figure out its navigational secrets — only on the day Finn is supposed to do his dive, Gilhs invites a group of diplomats to tour his ship and the counterspies want to call off the dive, but they fail to get to Finn in time (the suspense editing of Finn going under just before he can get the order countermanding the dive is the most effective part of Murphy’s direction), and so Keller has to sneak on board the ship, knock out a Russian diver, take his place and fight off the other Russian diver to save Finn’s life. The plot works out in some of the most boring underwater footage ever filmed, and of course it ends the way you think it will: Keller rescues Finn and the dead diver who washed up at Brighton (ya remember the dead diver who washed up at Brighton?) is actually the Russian whom Keller killed to save Finn’s life. At the end there’s a tag scene in which Keller — or is it Harding? Frankly I can’t remember which one was which — announces that next week’s episode (of course there never was a next week’s episode, just this one) will be about the counterspies foiling an attempt by Russian agents to steal America’s secret formula for rocket fuel. This could have been a nice little vest-pocket suspense thriller except it has little suspense and virtually no thrills; it doesn’t deserve the ridicule an reviewer heaped upon it but it’s not exactly thrill-a-minute stuff either, and all those murky (in more ways than one) shots of divers filmed at Silver Springs, Florida (for a while I was wondering if they actually shot in Britain to take advantage of frozen funds, but no-o-o-o-o) look pretty much the same and get awfully dull after a while.