Sunday, October 11, 2020

Hubrisween 2020 :: F is for FIVE (1951)

Our feature begins with a bang -- several of them, actually, and big ones at that, as the whole world self-destructs under the shadow of multiple mushroom clouds. And after the air-raid sirens fade, civilization ceases, and the radioactive dust settles, the world is eerily silent save for an angry wind and the soft, apprehensive steps of a lone survivor as she forlornly searches the countryside for any other signs of life. 

Tired, filthy, and all kinds of fraught, we're not sure what keeps this shell-shocked woman putting one foot in front of the other -- until we get a closer look at her in profile and notice that she is not quite terminally pregnant.

How long this search has been going on is hard to say, but as she crests another hill, passing another derelict car filled with the bleached bones of its former occupants, her pace quickens when she hears the faint sound of a church bell.

Following the noise into a small, one street town, where everywhere you look finds dire hints of the impending apocalypse come to pass, her demeanor becomes even more desperate and agitated as the village proves deserted, the bell triggered by its tether tangled in a tree, swaying in the breeze. Stumbling into the middle of the street, she cries out for help to anyone who can hear -- again, and again, and again. But there is no answer, save for her own echo.

Moving on, with another piece of herself whittled away, the expectant mother aimlessly winds her way further up into the hills until zeroing in on a large cabin, perched atop the highest peak overlooking the valley below. 

Expecting to find it empty, too, she is not disappointed. However, there are signs that someone might've been there, even recently. But before she can properly process the evidence she's seeing -- and I'm not even sure if she can, the last woman on Earth hears someone at the door...

As a writer and radio personality, Arch Oboler equaled -- and some would argue, bettered, his contemporary, Orson Welles. As a filmmaker? Well, perhaps not so much.

Like Welles, Oboler first came to prominence over the radio airwaves. Selling his first script while still in high school, by 1936 Oboler had carved out a niche for himself writing scripts for Wyliss Cooper's Lights Out, a twisted and offbeat anthology program for NBC that dealt with the macabre invading everyday life. And when Cooper was drawn to Hollywood, where he would eventually script the likes of Son of Frankenstein (1939) and the Bela Lugosi serial, The Phantom Creeps (1939), NBC turned the control switch for Lights Out over to their resident mad-boy genius, who opened each episode thusly:

"This is Arch Oboler bringing you another of our series of stories of the unusual, and once again we caution you: These Lights Out stories are definitely not for the timid soul. So we tell you calmly and very sincerely, if you frighten easily, turn off your radio now."

And pretty gruesome they were, too. For example, in the episode The Dark, when two paramedics arrive at an old house, inside they find a hysterical woman and the body of a man that appears to have been turned inside out -- who, upon further inspection, was still alive! And as our protagonists watch in horror, the discombobulated body tries desperately to move! And while the first person narration gives us the grisly details of the scene, the sound-effect technicians help paint an even more ghastlier picture for our ears as they discover the reason for this malediction: a strange black fog that quickly envelops and detonates the cackling woman, and soon enough, overcomes the medics; and then the episode ends as our narrator is overwhelmed by this malignant essence, leaving us with his desperate gurgles as his body painfully redefines itself. Bleaugh!

But as nasty as The Dark episode was, Oboler's most famous chiller was probably The Chicken Heart. Predating his rival Welles’ broadcast of The War of the Worlds (1938) by nearly a year, the snowball was already rolling downhill when a reporter phones in a report that some crackpot's scientific experiment has gone horribly awry. Somehow, through some dubious means, a piece of poultry is growing both exponentially and uncontrollably, devouring anything and everything to add to its ever-expanding mass. And as its creator pleads with the authorities, he lays out the worst case scenario if the protoplasmic mass isn't stopped: the entire world will be consumed and knocked off its axis in less than six months. Alas, no one believed the true danger until it was far too late. And as the giant, undulating blob spreads over the city, the county, and eventually the State, the reporter calls in the scene from a circling airplane; an airplane that soon develops fatal engine trouble. And then we close on the sputtering engine being overtaken by the deafening pulse of the giant, all-consuming mass. Thump-bump ... Thump-bump ... Thump-bump...

Now, despite the outlandish subject matter, like with his future TV equivalent, Rod Serling, Oboler had a lot more to offer on the human condition than just creeping the hell out of his audience. His programs often railed against society's ills and the horrors of fascism, currently overrunning Europe at the time, and people's inherent tendency to meekly follow the herd and do as they were told to maintain the status quo -- no matter what the cost. In fact, Oboler's first foray outside of radio was to co-script the anti-Nazi propaganda piece Escape (1949) for MGM, where Rod Taylor heads to Germany and runs into a brick wall of silence while trying to find his missing mother until he painstakingly pieces together that she was arrested for hiding Jewish refugees and is scheduled to be executed -- unless he can rescue her in time.

Then, in 1942, while retooling for the war-effort, the brass at General Motors, still stinging from the (well-founded) notion that they were German-sympathizers, gave Oboler his first directing gig on another propaganda piece, This Precious Freedom (1945), where Claude Raines returns from a fishing trip and finds his hometown overrun by Nazi fifth-columnists. (A motif Jack Warner would repeat in 1957 with Red Nightmare only with Communists.) But GM never released the short and sold it off to MGM, which sat on it until selling it back to Oboler and Raines, who then expanded it to feature-length and released it as the surreal Strange Holiday -- later released as The Day After Tomorrow and Terror on Main Street, where they take things a step further and imagine the entire United States under a totalitarian regime.

After that, Oboler bounced around Hollywood for a bit, until settling back at MGM for a string of offbeat film noir based on his old radio plays; a win / win for the studio, guaranteeing at least some box-office due to Oboler's entrenched popularity. Alter Ego begat Bewitched (1945), the tale of good girl Phyllis Thaxter, a schizophrenic, whose psychotic break on the eve of her engagement soon finds her wandering the darkened streets of Noirville, constantly at war with her bad girl alter-ego, voiced by Audrey Totter, whose assertions lead our heroine through a trio of men as her psychiatrist and fiancé try to put all the fragmented pieces back together again.

Heavily influenced by the shadowy work of Val Lewton and Jacques Tournuer -- The Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), Bewitched has a nice, smoky feel to it but the film [too] often tends to bog down and grind itself up in the gears of its dialogue heavy, tell-don't-show, radio-play roots. Meantime, The Arnelo Affair (1947) -- based on the radio play, I'll Tell My Husband, falls into the exact same trap, despite an interesting twist, where an unfulfilled housewife falls for the wrong guy and quickly plummets down the road to ruin. Critical reactions to both films were mixed but they still made money, meaning MGM wanted more of the same. Oboler, however, was tired of rehashing his old stuff and was eager to try something new. And after bidding the studio a fond farewell, he took a shot at independent filmmaking.

At this same time, barely five years after the bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II, the planet Earth was once more embroiled in a live-action shooter over differing political ideals in Korea. And as General MacArthur called for President Truman to authorize the use of nuclear weapons on strategic targets in China, the notion of the world being reduced to a radioactive cinder suddenly became an alarmingly distinct possibility. Thus and so, as the Cold War brewed ever hotter, and an entire nation naively Ducked and Covered, Arch Oboler decided the world needed to see what it would be like for the wretched survivors of a nuclear holocaust come to pass.

Predating the likes of The Day the World Ended (1955), The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959), The Last Man on Earth (1964), and Night of the Living Dead (1968), and post-dating the likes of Sahara (1943) and Lifeboat (1944), Oboler's FIVE (1951) would be a similar study in group-dynamics, where a small, diverse knot of survivors face -- and ultimately / hopefully try to overcome, some great cataclysm; a tempest without / crisis within backdrop, where the hazards of underlying prejudices and baser instincts threaten to unravel things from the inside out in the face of the greater overall good of the group. And in this particular case, the impending implosion of the last five surviving members of the human race.

For after that harrowing opening sequence, where our heroine, Roseanne Rogers (Douglas), discovers that she is no longer all alone at last, she faints dead away at the sight of Michael Rogan (Phipps), who was out rounding up more supplies from the nearby village. As she slowly recovers, these two swap survival stories; Roseanne apparently shielded awaiting a series of X-Rays, while Michael was stuck in an elevator in the bowels of the Empire State Building, which triggered a similarly gruesome, cross-country odyssey of bearing witness to all the lingering death and destruction from radiation poisoning.

As more time passes, we also find out the cabin they’re squatting in was specifically targeted by Roseanne, as it belonged to her reclusive sister, who apparently didn't survive. And though Michael seems content to stay put and scrape out a living there, Roseanne is obsessively insistent on returning to a nearby city once the baby comes and she's strong enough to see if her husband has survived as well.

Having traversed through several dead metropolitan centers already, Michael refuses to stomach those sights, sounds and smells again, and does his best to dissuade his new companion of her pie-in-the-sky notions, too. In fact, you get the sense Michael would kinda like to get his Adam and Eve on with her, but every attempt at any intimacy with the hot ‘n’ cold running Roseanne ends in disaster; usually with her freaking out and withdrawing into near catatonia again. Obviously, this vexation leaves the kind-hearted Michael a tad frustrated, who keeps trying but ultimately fails to convince Roseanne that her husband is most assuredly dead.

Meanwhile, this meager group doubles in size when two more survivors stumble upon the cabin: the elderly Mr. Barnstable (Lee) and an African American by the name of Charles (Lampkin). Having been lucky enough to be in the vault when the bombs dropped, these two former bank employees found a working jeep and have been puttering around ever since, looking for other survivors.

Happy to find two more living souls -- hell, they almost accidentally ran them over, while Roseanne enters her last trimester, Michael and Charles begin work on expanding their accommodations and, knowing their meager supplies will someday run out, begin clawing at the earth to see if they can get anything to grow. Not necessarily a tranquil existence, but under the circumstances, it'll do quite nicely. 

Alas, the dynamic is about to shift again; and not to get all biblical on you, but a familiar serpent is about to enter this new, slightly irradiated Eden and wreak all kinds of havoc.

Things start to unravel when Barnstable, obviously on his last leg, expresses a wish to see the ocean one last time; and see it he does, barely, before expiring. But no sooner has this remaining trio buried the deceased, when the ocean suddenly washes up yet another survivor.

Now, Eric's tale of being at the top of Mt. Everest when the atomic war broke out, who then island hopped all the way back to the States, to me, smacks a little of the old cock-n-bull; but when combined with his authoritative Germanic accent, the others take it at face value. And as a “conflict of interest” metaphor, Eric (Anderson) isn't very subtle as he goes all alpha-male and refuses to do any menial work, racially baits Charles, and sabotages most efforts to improve their living conditions. He also gets his hooks deep into the gullible Roseanne, playing on her desires to return to the city, wanting to take her back there for himself, where they can live like royalty instead of rooting around like pigs.

Blinded by the opportunity to finally find her husband, things are only put on hold long enough for Roseanne to deliver her baby before Eric sets into motion their escape by bundling Roseanne and the newborn into the jeep. But when Eric makes one more trip into the cabin for supplies, he runs into Charles, who, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, gets knifed to death.

On the way into town, Roseanne finally starts to see through Eric's deviousness but it’s too late as the die is already cast. A harsh, howling wind blows through the otherwise silent canyons of the obviously dead city. Navigating in as far as the clogged and congested streets will allow, Eric orders Roseanne to stay in the jeep while he takes in the lay of the land. But recognizing a few landmarks, Roseanne, with the fussy baby gripped tightly in her arms, goes on another, gut-wrenching stroll through the skeleton strewn avenues in search of her husband.

Entering his place of work, she finds the remains of a secretary still manning her desk, but the main office is empty. Silently taking in a few of her loved ones mementos -- a pipe, a pair of glasses -- this seems to jar Roseanne's memories a bit; and once more she takes to the streets and winds her way to a hospital, where, after a few suspenseful turns through the Obstetrics Ward, past the X-Ray suite, comes upon the waiting room, where all of this likely began, and finally gets the answer she's been seeking. An answer she probably knew all along but had been suppressing. Regardless, as Roseanne realizes the truth, and is soon cemented to this truth, she is determined to get out of this horrible place and back to the relative safety of the cabin.

Returning to the jeep, she finds Eric greedily picking through a bag full of jewelry. Upset that she wandered off, and even more upset by her demands, Eric moves to bring her back in line with the back of his hand. But before this beat down can commence, Roseanne notices something. Eric soon sees it, too; his hand has the same blotches that Barnstable had -- a tell-tale sign of terminal radiation poisoning. When a quick check shows the rest of his body is completely saturated with the festering lesions as well, unable to accept this, Eric cracks-up and then runs off screaming into the city, never to be seen again. Left alone, and unable to drive the jeep, Roseanne and the baby begin the long, harrowing trek back to her sister's cabin on foot.

This trip is a long and arduous one; and sadly, at some point, we realize that the baby is no longer crying ... Back at the cabin, Michael, who found and buried Charles, is hard at work trying to reclaim the small garden that Eric destroyed. From out of the trees Roseanne stumbles, the lifeless little form still clutched in her arms. Together, the couple buries the baby. Once that deed is done, Roseanne takes up a hoe, determined to help Michael make a go of their garden and start over from this new ground zero.

Being the first post-nuclear-apocalyptic think piece, FIVE is definitely a seminal film; and its influences, good and bad, can be seen in a lot of genre pictures that followed in its footsteps. Though it lacks the voice-overs of his earlier work, the movie still suffers from the tell don't show and spotlight sermonizing of Oboler's radio-tubed pedigree. And this kind of navel-gazing almost short-circuits any kind of allegorical-driven message the writer / director was trying to convey. Almost. What's sounds good for the ear doesn't necessarily translate well for the eye, granted, but I honestly believe Oboler's overall sincerity, which comes through loud and clear -- especially in the subtle, cynical aspects of the world being a better place once scraped clear of any so-called civilization, when combined with that somber and downbeat ending, short-circuits any calls of pretension in my book.

Financing the picture by himself to the tune of about $75,000, Oboler plucked several USC film students to be his all-purpose crew and commenced to filming in and around his own 360-acre ranch and the Cliff House -- a majestic cabin retreat designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, nestled in the Santa Monica Mountains along Mulholland Highway just outside Malibu, California, with the deserted streets of Glendale serving as his radiation-scarred cityscape.

More interested in his dialogue than anything else, as was his usual modus operandi -- and Achilles heel, it's been documented that Oboler wouldn't even watch the takes; just call action, don his headphones, and listen. And several other documented on set tales state that Oboler, always the perfectionist, tended to get a bit tyrannical if things didn't go exactly the way his ears wanted them to, leading to several dust-ups with both cast and crew -- and one particularly ugly incident, where Oboler punched assistant-editor, Arthur Swerdloff, in the face, which eventually went to litigation. Thus, with Oboler concentrating so hard on the audio, the striking look of FIVE must be properly credited to the work of his novice film crew, specifically cinematographers Sid Lubow and Louis Stoumen.

For the cast, even though he was on a first name basis with the likes of James Cagney and Bette Davis, Oboler, driven by his lack of budget, instead trolled the acting schools of his famous friends -- Charles Laughton among them, and cherry-picked several unknowns. And like his other films, FIVE centers around a tragically flawed heroine; and though rumored to have been difficult off-screen, Susan Douglas' performance on screen, book-ended by those two fabulous and inventive sequences of her stumbling around amongst all that death and decay, is fantastic, which, I think, really grounds the movie in a delirious unreality that is hard to shake and forget.

In fact, with the reported festering animosity between Douglas and her co-star, William Phipps, during filming, mixed with the alcohol fueled, self-destructive nature of James Anderson --who would go on to play the despicable Bob Ewell in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), I honestly think all of this off-screen acrimony actually leaked through onto the screen and only adds another underlying element of friction between an otherwise pat love triangle.

Once filming was completed, Oboler's troubles were far from over. Being a non-union production, the already cash-strapped entrepreneur was under constant pressure and endured a series of fines and levies. Undaunted, when it came time for the premiere, Oboler took advantage of the new medium of television and FIVE became the first film to have its premiere televised nationally. But despite this initial buzz, the film failed to find an audience and quickly died at the box-office.

Enter producer Sidney Pink -- of future The Angry Red Planet (1959) and Reptilicus (1961) infamy, who successfully retooled and sensationalized a new advertising campaign, allowing FIVE to eventually earn a modest profit for Columbia, to whom Oboler had sold the film to settle-up with the disgruntled unions and bill collectors.

In the end, Arch Oboler's gift of weaving a fantastic story for radio never could find any traction when trying to translate it to the big screen. But after nearly bankrupting himself again with another box-office disaster in The Twonky (1952) -- a prescient satirical look at the influence of the old idiot-box, Oboler's Hollywood career recovered slightly with the innovative use of the new Stereo-Scopic 3-D process for his take on the Lions of Tsavo massacre, Bwana Devil (1952) -- but that's another story for another day.

Beyond that, a few more cinematic missteps -- One Plus One (1961), The Bubble (1966), and a disastrous Broadway production of The Night of the Auk, another cautionary tale that fizzled, kinda left a less than stellar legacy outside of radio for old Oboler. Still, one cannot deny that a lot of Oboler's swings and near misses were mighty impressive misfires. And though FIVE might not make as favorable an impression on you as it did for me, the film definitely doesn't deserve the grief it has accumulated over the years and is nowhere near as bad as its dubious reputation -- and it’s definitely worth the time and effort to track down for that opening sequence alone.

Well, if you don't know what Hubrisween is by now, Boils and Ghouls, I don't think I can help you. Anyhoo, that's SIX films down with 20 yet to go. Up next, A Turd. A Turd as Big as a Battleship. 

FIVE (1951) Arch Oboler Productions :: Lobo Productions :: Columbia Pictures / P: Arch Oboler / D: Arch Oboler / W: Arch Oboler / C: Sid Lubow, Louis Clyde Stoumen / E: John Hoffman, Ed Spiegel, Arthur Swerdloff / M: Henry Russell / S: Susan Douglas, William Phipps, James Anderson, Charles Lampkin, Earl Lee

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