Jan 7, 2008
Arch Oboler was a pioneering showman of radio drama (often gruesome melodrama with an attention to ambient sound) before he broke into the movie business. Among his scant output as a director is the very first 3D feature, Bwana Devil (1952), and had also experimented with stereoscopic visuals in the sci-fi favourite The Bubble (1966), and his final feature, Domo Arigato (1972). Because he often expanded the technical parameters of whichever medium he chose, one could argue that his gift was more for gimmicks than anything, but Five is proof to the contrary.
This film is the grandfather of all atomic-themed features of the 1950's, and of all the movies of the period which played upon audiences' fears of the bomb, this one is perhaps the most gritty and realistic (even more than the overrated On the Beach that closed the decade). This literate tale chronicles the exploits of five survivors of an atomic holocaust, who meet near a country home: a pregnant woman (Susan Douglas), a poet (William Phipps), a neo-Nazi mountain climber (James Anderson) a black man (Charles Lampkin) and an old banker (Earl Lee). In between pondering how they alone survived, they often conflict with each other in their quest for survival in this new world. Most of the film was shot at Oboler's own Frank Lloyd Wright-designed country estate, and this singular location adds to the claustrophobia (this scenario may remind contemporary viewers of Night of the Living Dead). The futuristic design of the building makes this film seem contemporary even today. One is also surprised by its responsible, adult approach to taboo subject matter. Few films, especially in that decade, explore the complexity of racism with such honesty. In fact, the role of Charles is one of the finest African American portrayals of its decade.
Five has quite a reputation, and since it is seldom seen today, that status is unchallenged. However, Sinister Cinema offers a nice copy for sale, and for the most part, the curious will be satisfied. But as "ahead of its time" as it may seem, this picture is also dated with its heavy moralizing, and long preachy sequences about God. And as much as the religious subtext seems a part of the time in which it was produced, this is actually a perverse re-reading of the Book of Genesis-- an Adam and Eve for the post-atomic age.
Not surprisingly, Five works best in its quietest moments, as Roseanne walks through an abandoned town in the opening (with such ironic cut-ins as a store sign saying "Back in five minutes" or a case of "Atomic Soap Suds"), and her later trip through the burned-out city (love the hand-held camera work as she prowls through her husband's office building). The crisp cinematography gives also this film an authentic feel. And likely since writer-producer-director Oboler was a radio veteran, much attention is paid to ambient sound-- the waves, a school bell that is chimed by the wind, and an air-raid siren that just won't stop. One really does get the sense of being born again in a different world.
Arch Oboler is surely a subject worthy of re-discovery today (and sadly, most of his filmography is hard to find). His was a movie career full of "firsts" which tapped into the consciousness of the 1950's. Five was the first to explore the theme of atomic aftermath. Bwana Devil was the first of the 3D pictures that were produced in order for theater owners to compete with the new medium of television. And that new medium would be an object of satire in his loopy comedy The Twonky.