Tuesday, March 31, 2009

FIVE (1951)

After a nuclear apocalypse (the details of which are apparently unimportant, though given the year of this film's production, it was undoubtedly the Russians' fault), we see a young woman (Susan Douglas) wandering down a road and through a small town, encountering only ruins and dead bodies. She arrives at a nice house in the mountains which belonged to a relative, and finds only a squatter, a handsome, bearded English major (William Phipps) who was working as a guide at the top of the Empire State Building when the bombs hit. With the rest of the population dead of radiation poisoning, the two figure they were shielded somehow, he because he was struck unconscious in an empty elevator and she because she was in a hospital X-ray room getting confirmation of her pregnancy. She's a little shellshocked (hoping unrealistically that her husband is still alive somewhere) and he tries to force his attentions on her, but eventually they work out a living arrangement. Soon they're joined by two bank clerks, an old, sick white man (Earl Lee) and a young, healthy black man (Charles Lampkin). Lee, who shows signs of radiation sickness, dies just as a fifth person arrives, an obnoxiously elitist European adventurer (James Anderson) who was on Mt. Everest and escaped the poison. Lampkin and Phipps do the hard work involved in trying to sustain their little commune, but the racist Anderson, who doesn't even like to be in the same room as Lampkin, wants to head out to nearby towns, sure that others must be alive. Douglas, who delivers an apparently healthy baby, wants to go with him to find her husband. After some violent psychodramas play out, the predictable ending is an Adam and Eve/American Gothic tableau, presenting a glimmer of hope in the bleakness.

This was, I think, the first movie made about a post-nuclear war world, and it was written and directed, on a fairly low budget, by Arch Oboler who was better known for his radio plays. In fact, the dialogue is much more striking than the unimaginative visuals--except for the odd wooden house which was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and owned by Oboler. Though apocalypse movies would eventually become dominated by special effects, this one works fairly well with only some strategically placed skeletons. Douglas and Lampkin are likeable and complex characters and Phipps truly seemed to be an interesting guy (maybe I felt that way because of my own jaded-English-major background). Anderson is suitably unlikable, but we barely get to know Lee. In fact, the movie should probably be called FOUR, since five adults never share the screen. There are plot holes involving Phipps' journey to the house and the fate of Douglas's husband, and there is very little action, but there's something almost quaintly charming about such a low-key apocalypse movie. BTW, although these actors are not famous, all but Lee had fairly long careers, with Phipps and Douglas having film credits right up to the millennium. [TCM]


Jim said...

And I thought Se7en was an irritating film title.

Michael said...

To be fair, I don't think the "5IVE" spelling is actually used on or in the film proper, just on the DVD jacket.