Five people are miraculously spared when the fall-out from a super-atomic bomb eventually kills all of the rest of humanity on earth. They are Roseanne Rogers, a pregnant woman who was in an X-ray room; Michael, a sensitive young poet and philosopher; Charles, a black man; Mr. Barnstaple, a banker; and Eric, a cosmopolitan Alpinist who was saved from the radio-active dust because he was climbing Mt. Everest at the time of the explosion and fall-out. Eventually, they all wind up in a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house on a California mountaintop. There is a lot of symbolism, especially with the mountain climber, who represents decadent and alien fascism and the banker who brings greed and arrogance to this new Eden on Earth. Soon, only two are left.
Directed by: Arch Oboler
. Starring: William Phipps
, Susan Douglas Rubes
, James Anderson
, Charles Lampkin
, Earl Lee
. Music by: Henry Russell
, William Lava
, Charles Maxwell
TMC should be saluted for reviving this seldom seen film from 1950. I hadn't seen it in many years since it was never a staple of the Late Show. That's not surprising since Five features a no-name cast on a topic bound to depress even Disneyland-- nuclear annihilation. I did see the movie as a boy on initial release and it made a lasting impression. I expect that sort of impact was Oboler's purpose in writing, directing, and producing the project.
Consider the movie's time period. In 1949, the Soviets tested their first nuclear device, meaning that the US no longer had a monopoly and-- given the emerging Cold War -- nuclear war became a real possibility for the first time. But such a conflict would be nothing like the wars preceding the atomic age in scope, killing power, or aftermath. Likely, this was the alarm that Oboler was hoping to sound to a complaisant American public coming off the great victories of WWII. The people of that period, however, were looking forward to a refrigerator, washing machine and a good job, and the last thing they wanted to be reminded of was a newer and more apocalyptic world war.
The fact that Five was obviously made on a shoestring speaks volumes, I think, as to how Hollywood viewed the subject matter. And though movie sci-fi was overrun with nuclear mutants for the remainder of the decade, I don't believe there was another realistic effort until decade's end with On the Beach (I could be wrong). The topic itself became politically controversial once it was argued that the nation had to take the nuclear risk in order to protect our way of life. Nonetheless, Oboler appears to be testing new ground in neighborhood theatres with a politically charged subject. And for that, the movie has a genuine significance over and above its obscure status and conspicuous limitations.
The movie itself is fairly effective in tackling a big topic with a small budget. Phipps is superb as the steadfast survivor, showing the kind of untapped talent lying behind so many of the ordinary-looking movie people. Sad-faced Susan Douglas is excellent too as a survivor who can't let go of what is now gone forever, along with Charles Lampkin as the ill-fated black man eager to help. In my book, the movie's biggest problem lies with James Anderson's near cartoon-like villain with a French accent so obviously phony, it looks like someone wasn't paying attention. Then too, the character is poorly written compounding the problem. Too bad that Anderson's role is so central to the drama.
Of course, in a time of limited special effects, the production's biggest challenge was portraying world destruction. Shrewdly, Oboler makes good use of the desolate SoCal scrublands to suggest a wider desolation in the many panoramic shots surrounding the isolated hill house. Just as important, the hill house's modernistic design projects us into a possible future. The opening montage of a traumatized Douglas wandering through the surrounding destruction creates the appropriate mood of dislocation. The visit to the city, however, is trickier. Notice how Oboler uses truncated shots of skyscrapers to denote the city, along with the more elaborate street sets. No doubt, today's digital technology would create vast smoking vistas of urban destruction. But that sort of spectacle, impressive as it is, risks overwhelming the human element which Oboler never loses sight of. Note too, the effective use of the ocean as another panorama of a world gone suddenly barren. That expanse also shrewdly suggests an eternity on whose edge humanity's survivors are now perched. It's this expert use of background that helps lift the results beyond the merely economical.
It appears the movie was not well received critically. Certainly some of the dialog sounds stilted, a surprise since Oboler made his mark in radio drama. That, along with the unfortunate Anderson performance, may have soured opinion. Then again, the subject matter was both novel and threatening, even though the film ends on a hopeful note. However that may be, Five remains an unusual example of Hollywood minimalism that deserves broader viewing even now, 60 years later. For, unless I'm badly mistaken, there are currently thousands more nuclear weapons than there were in 1950. By no means has the movie lost relevance.
Review by dougdoepke from the Internet Movie Database.