Five (1951)

Five_(1951)‘Four men and one woman are the last five people on Earth…This is their story!’

Nuclear war wipes out mankind. Four strangers survive in an isolated area of the United States, but can they put aside their differences and make a new life together? Things seem to be working out, but then a newcomer arrives…

Arch Oboler had found considerable success on both radio and television in the 1940s and made the step into film shortly afterward. His scripts and themes did not find favour with the major Hollywood studios, which were beginning to disintegrate as they lost control of theatre chains under new anti-trust legislation. So Oboler became part of the first wave of independent filmmakers, and also the filmmaker to tackle the subject of life in the aftermath of nuclear war.

Early scenes of an abandoned, small town are undeniably eerie and effective, although there is a notable absence of corpses in the street. It’s clear from the off that little was known about conditions after a nuclear strike as the weather remains fine throughout, and fall out doesn’t get a mention. Anyway, desperate, pregnant Susan Douglas reaches the hilltop home of friends on the outside of town, only to find it occupied by lone wolf William Phipps. They strike up an uneasy alliance and are later joined by bank manager Earl Lee and black man Charles Lampkin.

Five_(1951)

Parking problems in the city had reached serious proportions.

Given the film’s vintage, it’s no surprise that Lampkin’s colour is mentioned, but that non-issue is swiftly abandoned when the quartet take refuge under the same roof. The equality of their relationships is presented in a pleasingly matter of fact and everyday way, which makes for an excellent, and subtle, anti-racist statement. Having said that, of course, our hero and main man is white bread Phipps. By the end of the decade Harry Belafonte did have a more central role in the similar, and under-rated, ‘The World, The Flesh and the Devil’ (1958).

The snake in the ointment is Eric (James Anderson), who is washed up on a nearby beach, having survived the bombs by being halfway up a mountain at the time that they struck. Rather stereotypically (sadly), he’s a foreigner, and doesn’t really take to all this communal living palaver. It’s no surprise when he indulges in a few racial slurs and plans to run off with Douglas after she’s had her baby. Anderson later played a similar role in the slightly more well known ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ (1962).

There’s an obvious ‘Garden of Eden’ parallel here, and, unfortunately, as the film progresses, it’s rather layered on with a trowel. But it’s the lack of action that really sinks the film. It’s very talky indeed and, although this is quite realistic, and very different to all the mutations and monsters that were shortly to follow, inevitably it’s not very exciting. We spend too much time in the house on the hill, even though its avant-garde design by famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright does helps to reinforce the other worldly atmosphere. Excellent black and white photography by Sid Lubow and Louis Clyde Stouman also adds atmosphere and a stamp of quality.

An unusual, and ground~breaking, production that’s shackled by the conventions of its time and by the limited resources available to the filmmakers.

The Twonky (1953)

The Twonky (1953)

‘In a few minutes, your Twonky will twonk no more!’

Meet Professor Hans Conreid. His wife is going to visit her sister so she buys him a TV set to keep him company while she’s away. Unfortunately, it turns out the device has a mind of its own and it’s soon running his life. 

Writer-producer-director Arch Oboler was a man of many talents. He was most famous for his hit radio show ‘Lights Out’ in the 1930’s and 40’s but was also a playwright and wrote and directed the first film ever made about survival after a nuclear attack – ‘Five’ (1951). He also directed the first film ever shot in 3-D – ‘Bwana Devil’ (1952). He was a man ahead of his time. Another venture was a very short-lived TV show in 1949, which must have inspired ‘The Twonky’ (1953)

Professor Conreid is initially skeptical about the value of television. Not so when it starts lighting his cigarettes for him, doing the washing up and printing money so he can pay a bill collector. But there are warning signs from the beginning… it won’t allow him to drink more than one cup of coffee and zaps him sober after a night on the tiles. All this is played for laughs but the comedy is lame, obvious and rather banal. It’s far more interesting to consider the underlying themes of the film. The original story on which is it based – by Henry Kuttner – has some justification for the origin of the ‘Twonky’ but Oboler omits that and just throws in some vague talk about ‘robots’ and the ‘future.’  

'That was never a penalty!'

‘That was never a penalty!’

At the time, the film must have seemed pure paranoid fantasy but looked at now, it appears weirdly prescient. Not just for the way it foretells of our dependance on household technologies but also for the wider debate it raises: free will versus the imposition of rules and restraints ‘for our own good’. In the end, Conreid concludes that he must be free to make his own mistakes. It’s a message that resonates in the early 21st Century in a society of increasing regulation on every day life and behaviour. 

Having said all that, of course It’s not a good film. It’s cheaply made, poorly acted and has about enough storyline for a 20 minute short. Comedy was certainly not Oboler’s forte and he understood little of filmmaking technique. It was only released two years after it was made.

But Oboler was a man of ideas and vision, who often funded his own projects. In later years, filmmakers as diverse as Francois Truffaut and Don Coscarelli have claimed his work as a major influence.