Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Sony's Martini Movies branded line has come up with the ideal entertainment attraction to take our minds off the looming economic meltdown -- a sober doomsday classic about the end of the world!
Arch Oboler's Five is a significant oddity, an American art film that's also the first science fiction examination of the aftermath of a nuclear conflict. A minor success in 1951, it enjoyed a second life as a late-night movie, and many viewers have distinct memories of being affected by its realism and grim outlook. Is it really possible that the entire population of the planet could be wiped out by a nuclear war? Are the civil defense pamphlets not telling the whole truth?
The spare storyline follows a handful of people marooned in the aftermath of an atomic exchange. The survivors find their way to an isolated house in a lonely landscape. Calm Michael (William Phipps) attends to the practical matters of hunting for food and working on growing a crop. Roseann (Susan Douglas) awaits the birth of her baby and clings to the hope that her husband may be alive back in the city. Mr. Barnstaple (Earl Lee) is a timid bank clerk; his mind has snapped under the psychic pressure. Helping him is a black ex-G.I. named Charles (Charles Lampkin).
The last to show up is Eric (James Anderson), an arrogant mountain climber. Eric has no intention of pitching in for the common good. While the others work he takes the group's jeep to forage for treasures in the cities below. Michael and Eric are both interested in Roseann, but she's too shaken to respond. To keep the group's only female for himself, Eric exploits Roseann's optimism, and offers to sneak her away to look for her husband.
The relentlessly downbeat Five has a raw look not seen in many mainstream American releases of the early 1950s, not even exploitation pictures. The gritty tone offers no assurance of a happy ending, and the birth of Roseann's baby only underlines the survivors' insecurity. The movie's visible pregnancy and breast-feeding scene were highly unusual for a movie with a Production Code seal. The racial theme is also handled with uncommon directness. Eric tells Charles to his face that his presence offends him and insists that he leave. Charles' only response is to sigh: "So. Now it's finally out."
Five was filmed at Arch Oboler's Santa Monica Mountains Cliff House, a distinctive structure designed by the famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The direction is frequently reminiscent of experimental filmmaking. Lap dissolves link huge close-ups with images of empty beaches and cloudy skies. The stark lighting and unforced blocking strive for emotional honesty. As little in Oboler's filmography suggests this kind of visual finesse, we may be tempted to credit some of the film's artistry to its "cinematographic consultant", accomplished photographer Louis Clyde Stoumen. 1
In the film's most suspenseful scene Eric and Roseann return to downtown Los Angeles. Only a couple of streets are dressed with the expected ruined vehicles and skeletal corpses. Director Oboler evokes a proper mood of doom with up-angled shots of buildings passing by. The soundtrack is filled with the constant wail of civil defense sirens. The sirens are psychological, not literal -- they cease only when Roseann finds what she's looking for.
The movie is more of a poetic allegory than a scientific documentary. The sudden gathering of five survivors suggests that plenty of people are alive out there somewhere, but Eric reportedly sailed from India to California without seeing a single living soul. Four of the five escaped the atom blasts because they were in unusual places when the bombs hit, but those circumstances wouldn't have made them any less susceptible to airborne radioactivity. Two of the group come down with radiation poisoning, and it's possible that they all may succumb in time.
Five reportedly cost only $75,000 to produce. It set the template for the post-atomic melodramas that followed: On the Beach, The Day the World Ended; The World, the Flesh and the Devil; Last Woman on Earth. We have the themes of Old Testament retribution and a new Adam and Eve, the isolated cabin setting and the exploration of a dead city. Dramatic conflicts form around racial prejudice and an amorous competition for the last surviving female. A lonely beach becomes a symbolic setting for the End of the World. Five distinguishes itself from similar films of its decade by its utter lack of sentimentality. One of the final scenes involves a tragedy rarely depicted in such explicit terms.
The fragile-looking Susan Douglas conveys terror and disorientation well. William Phipps (a character actor with small parts in quite a few 50s science fiction films) seems a natural philosopher, although he makes a somewhat subdued leading man. James Anderson affects a French accent; the script explicity labels his selfish arrogance as a sickness that should have died with the "old world". Earl Lee's feeble clerk represents the millions unequipped to cope with a world turned upside down. Charles Lampkin intones some moody Biblical verses, helping to integrate the Bible quotes that producer Oboler uses to bookend his unusual movie.
Sony's Martini Movies DVD of Five looks far better than any video copy previously available. Old TV prints were dim and grainy. The greyish cinematography is properly represented in this encoding. Cheap optical work mars some of the dissolves, leaving patterns of black specks on the screen. Sony's restoration work is particularly commendable when one knows the condition of the film elements. Many scenes in the original negative were long ago replaced with dupe sections, which occurs in films more often than one would think.
The audio quality is excellent. Although Matthew Rovner's Parallax View article on Arch Oboler mentions that Five used an early magnetic film system to record live sound on the set, the audio tracks appear to have been expertly looped, especially the exteriors.
The disc comes with an original trailer in near-perfect condition; it even uses the text phrase "The Last Woman On Earth!" For once a Martini Movies cover artwork looks fairly attractive -- none of the movie's original ad art was very interesting. The title has been creatively re-spelled as 5ive for the package (not the film itself). This marketing move is guaranteed to create confusion, even if just for customers trying to pick the release out of an alphabetical index. I bet I know the clever Sony DVD consultant responsible!
Will nobody ever listen to Savant?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Five ("5ive") rates:
Supplements: Original Trailer.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 5, 2009
1. I haven't seen Oboler's wartime propaganda fantasy, Strange Holiday, which must have more interesting visuals than The Twonky, Bwana Devil and The Bubble. Louis Clyde Stoumen, a member of the UCLA Film School faculty, was a photographer and poet as well as a winner of two Academy Awards for short subjects.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson
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