Five (1951) d. Arch Oboler

, 2013-05-07

An anonymous woman traipses from place to place, searching for any sign of civilization in the aftermath of nuclear devastation. Upon reaching a hillside house she finds another survivor, Michael Rogin. After some initial shock, she introduces herself as Roseanne Rogers and explains that the hillside house was her aunt's. He was trapped in an elevator on the Empire State Building, while she was being X-rayed in a lead-lined room. They soon become friends, though Roseanne resists Michael's attempts at intimacy, revealing that she is pregnant. Soon enough, the smoke from the fire Michael lights beckons fellow travellers Charles and Mr Oliver P Barnstaple, who were fortunate enough to be locked in a bank vault when the bomb detonated. The picture moves along languidly as our 'five' of sorts live off the land.Skeletons slouching against the door jambs of cars; ghost-town church bulletins urging Sin_ers to R_pent and evocative shots of lonely landscapes: yes, they were all here first in inglorious monochrome way back in 1951. Although later entries in the genre would offer fighter jets, radioactive mutants and Red-baiting gun-toting American heroes, Arch Oboler's seminal black-and-white feature has an eerie atmosphere and a far more believable form of threat.When the delusional Barnstaple (who believed he was on holiday) passes away peacefully on the beach, the balance is immediately restored by Eric, who washes ashore after his plane crashed at sea on the flight back from a climbing expedition on Mt Everest. He soon reveals his disdain for their communal lifestyle and discomfort in living with Charles, an African-American. After he drives their jeep through the crop they had cultivated, Michael orders Eric to leave but he pulls a pistol on him, telling him he'll leave when he's ready to. Meanwhile, Roseanne gives birth to her baby, a boy. One night, Eric kills Charles when he stops him for stealing supplies. He offers to drive Roseanne into the city where she can discover her husband's fate and, unable to resist, she accompanies him. After finding what remains of her husband, she returns to the jeep to find that Eric has used the day out to loot jewellery. She tries to return to the group but he refuses to let her go. A struggle ensues, whereupon his shirt is torn open, revealing radiation sores all over him. He runs away despondently.Roseanne's baby dies in her arms on the long walk back but Michael finds her, and they return home to replant their crops and begin life anew. Collectivism as expressed in the Bible is celebrated here as the aboriginal and final stage of human evolution. As Charles soliloquizes, "And God stepped out on space, and He looked around and said "I'm lonely
I'll make me a world." James Weldon Johnson's The Creation assumes an altogether different subtext in a nuclear holocaust. Has the Judeo-Christian God punished them for their sins or abandoned them due to boredom? It is a tragic ending, for if Michael and Roseanne are the Adam and Eve of the end times, then any children they may conceive will be the last (with two eyes/ears etc).It's surprising that Arch Oboler avoided the Hollywood blacklist given that his movie is so discernibly Red. Charles Lampkin portrays the first intelligent African-American character in Hollywood history, and not in an unconscious way. They all subsist happily in their commune until the gun-pointing racist with the German accent arrives, representing the fascist enemy Oboler sought to destroy entirely in his wartime propaganda films. For him, 1951 wasn't too late to drop Henry Luce's vision of the 20th century for Henry Wallace's. It's no wonder he had to finance the film out of pocket considering the tone, and a shame it received such a limited distribution. Arch Oboler would go on to break new ground with the first 3D colour feature Bwana Devil and The Bubble, the first to use the more economical Space-Vision 3D system. But never again would he reach the artistic zenith of Five.