Thursday, August 18, 2016

THIS IS NOT A TEST (1962)

One night along a California highway, Deputy Colter is ordered to put up a roadblock. Several travelers who are stopped get annoyed until Colter tells them what's happening: martial law has been declared because nuclear missiles are headed toward the States and they happen to be in a prime target area (military technology and oil reserves). Among the inconvenienced citizens: Jacob, an old farmer, and his daughter Juney; businessman Sam and his mildly disgruntled wife Karen; young speeder Cheryl and her playboy boyfriend Joe who has finally landed some big money but now realizes he has no use for it; trucker Al and Clint, the handsome but strange guy he picked up on the road; and cleancut young Pete. Tensions ebb and flow in the group, particularly when Colter takes charge and makes Al clean out his truck so they all get inside and wait out the blast and the ensuing radioactivity. Not everyone thinks that's such a good idea so a few wind up striking out on their own. Other problems: Clint is a psychotic killer on the run and, though Colter scares him away, he hangs around in the hills near the group; Al flirts with Karen which threatens to unhinge her husband; Pete gets sweet on innocent Juney. Then there's the gang of looters who arrive just moments before the bombs are due to fall. And don't forget Karen's pet Chihuahua.

Though a micro-budget, no-star affair, this still manages to be mostly effective, as long as you're not looking for apocalyptic special effects. It's primarily a character drama and, appropriately, it proceeds on limited sets like a TV episode or, as another critic has noted, a play (it has a bit of the feel of The Petrified Forest  but set outside). The writing is good enough that I wish the acting had been better; the actors are OK but bigger talents would have added another layer of appeal to the film. Seamon Glass (at right) has the burly build and steely gaze of a highway cop, but he mostly seems to be reciting lines he just learned, though when his character stars showing signs of falling apart near the end, Glass gets a chance to shine, especially in a scene with the dog. No one in the cast was familiar to me, but mention should be made of Ron Starr (pictured above left), who makes a very effective psycho—the script hints at a Norman Bates-type of personality but he's the least developed of all the characters; Norman Winston, who gives the wronged husband a nice touch of gravitas; and Don Spurance and Aubrey Martin as the coupled-up Pete and Juney. I like the fact that several boxes of Christmas ornaments are taken out of the truck and spread about in a fatalistic stab at humor and irony. Not a bad little film, best approached as a period piece from the middle of the Cold War—though interestingly, there is absolutely no political discussion or mention of where the bombs are coming from; audiences of the time would have known there were Russian. [YouTube]

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