Movie: Five (1955)

It is telling that nuclear holocaust films seemed to have been produced in the greatest number in the 50s and the 80s, two eras when the world felt especially close to that becoming a reality.

1955’s Five is, I believe, the earliest of this type of picture.  The core group of this is four, and not five, people who somehow find each other somewhere near the northeastern US coast.

Two characters survived the nuclear attack by being in a bank vault at the time, so it is understandable these two would be together.  I seriously doubt, however, those two would have met any of the others they eventually find, nor would any of those individuals have met each other.  My wife and I can’t find each other in a supermarket, so I doubt four people could just wander around the US and find each other.  Still, I was able to suspend my disbelief for this.

The first person we meet is Susan Douglas, who we see wandering through what is doubtlessly the most recent of a long series of vacant towns.  She eventually finds a fellow survivor who lives in what I thought was a ranger station, though I’m unclear on that.  If it is a ranger station, then I’m considering working for the forestry service if that means I can live in a place like this.  Just so I don’t have to, you know, do any work in the out-of-doors or anything.

The guy’s name is Michael Roden (played by William Phipps).  I’m hoping everybody he met where there were still, um, people would hear his name and immediately think “…boat ashore”.  Fortunately, she apparently never told that guy, “Not if you were the last man on Earth”, because she has a bun in the oven in short order.

The next to arrive are the two who survived in a bank vault.  One is an upper-middle-aged bank clerk who cheerfully maintains the delusion he is still on the job.  It’s no surprise he won’t be in the movie for long.

His friend from the bank is Charles Lampkin, and this guy owns this movie.  He may not be top-billed but he definitely is the star of it.  He delivers the best performance and has most of the best lines.  What makes this surprising is Lampkin is a black actor in this 1955 movie, a time when so much of the country had segregated bathrooms and drinking fountains.

Lampkin has a monologue which I consider to be the picture’s centerpiece, probably the most beautiful re-telling I have heard of the Biblical creation story.  He also gets a funny line in what would normally be a morbidly solemn affair.  When Phipps proposes they hook up a generator, Lampkin jokes about sending himself a monthly electric bill.  The line reading feels natural.  It’s a nice moment.

Conflict arrives when they find James Anderson washed up on the store.  He was on top of Everest when the blast occurred.  The movie is unclear about how much time has happened since then, but the film’s credibility is stretched to the point of breaking when you consider he somehow came from the other side of the world and just happens to wash up where they are what may be the only four survivors in North America.

Anderson is obviously trouble from the first moment he opens his mouth, spouting doom and gloom.  It’s like Jean-Paul Sartre found them.  Interesting attitude for somebody who climbed Everest.  As Phipps observes, “Some people have to climb mountains to justify their existence.”  I am on-board with that statement, as I am wearing a deep butt-groove on a loveseat while I write all this garbage.

To my considerable surprise, this film does not suffer what has been the death-knell of so many similar pictures, and that is over-earnestness.  I expect such an effort to be ham-fisted, especially when it is such a small-scale production as this.  Admittedly, things did not work promising at the start, when a Bible verse appears on screen: “The deadly wind passeth over it / And it is gone; / And the place thereof / Shall know it no more.”  People around me when I eat Taco Bell always quote that verse, too.

I’m surprised this was the first nuclear apocalypse picture, as it is one of the best I have seen.  It has a similar vibe to, and shares some themes with, The World, The Flesh and The Devil, though I liked Five better.  It is a small film, but that works to its favor.  This isn’t a movie so much about most of the world’s population dying, but how those who survived will go forward.  As Lapmkin says at one point, “As long as things keep growing, everything will be alright.”

Dir: Arch Oboler

Starring William Phipps, Susan Douglas, Charles Lampkin, James Anderson

Watched on Imprint blu-ray (import)