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The science fiction drama Five (1951) was produced independently on a very low budget by Arch Oboler, famous in the 1940s for his radio productions, including the popular series Lights Out. Oboler produced, wrote, and directed Five, shot it largely on his own property, and hired a small, inexpensive crew made up of recent graduates from The University of Southern California film school. His cast was also small (as the title implies), and were made up of unknowns. Consequently, Oboler was able to shoot his feature for a mere $75,000. The finished film was sold outright to Columbia Pictures for a tidy profit. It is remembered today as the first film to portray life after a nuclear holocaust; later this theme was approached by major studios in big-budget films such as The World, the Flesh and the Devil and On the Beach (both 1959).
Arch Oboler's screenplay for Five was an expanded version of a two-character radio play he had written called "The Word." In a few stock shots and photos at the beginning of the film, we are told that a radioactive dust has swept over the globe, killing all animal life and reducing humans to skeletons. In a remote mountainous area near a large city, we see the pregnant Roseanne (Susan Douglas) approach a small futuristic-looking house. There she finds Michael (William Phipps), another survivor. Michael had been alone in an elevator at the top of the Empire State Building, and Roseanne explains that she was at a hospital with her husband, and she had been shielded in a lead-lined X-ray room. Over time, a few other survivors join them: Charles (Charles Lampkin) and Barnstaple (Earl Lee) both worked in a bank and were protected by a vault door, while Eric (James Anderson) washes up on the nearby beach. No sooner does this disparate group come together than conflicts occur. Roseanne is anxious to return to the city to search for her husband, but loner Michael wants to stay far away; he says, "We're in a dead world, and I'm glad it's dead - cheap honky-tonk of a world..." Eric is treacherous and a racist he finds the mere presence of African-American Charles in their group offensive. Michael and Eric also vie for the attentions of Roseanne, but she expresses no interest in them. Some in the group are also doomed due to the lingering effects of radiation.
The shooting location of Five was the remote 360-acre ranch owned by Oboler and his wife Eleanor in Santa Monica Mountains near Los Angeles. The futuristic house seen in the film was the Oboler's guesthouse, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The Obolers had commissioned Wright to design a complex of structures on their property, but a gatehouse and the hilltop retreat were the only buildings finished; they were done in the same rubblestone style construction as Wright's famed Taliesin West in Arizona. The sole female cast member, Susan Douglas, told interviewer Tom Weaver (in Eye on Science Fiction: 20 Interviews with Classic SF and Horror Filmmakers), of the Wright structure: "It was a six-or-eight sided house, and all around were big windows, huge I'd never seen that many....It just had sort of like a living room-dining room area, although it wasn't formal like that, it was just a large room. And then one room off it, which was the bedroom, and a bathroom and kitchen. That was it. There was very interesting, very rugged terrain all around us. They wouldn't let me walk anywhere outside alone because there were rattlesnakes. If I wanted to go somewhere, one of the crew members would go with me, with a little pistol."
Shooting with such a small cast and crew in such an isolated, cramped location must have sometimes felt like an extension of the story that was being filmed, and at least on one occasion tempers flared in dramatic fashion. Douglas told Weaver that Oboler had an argument with one of the young crewmembers, Art Swerdloff, that came to fisticuffs, saying "...they hit back and forth both of 'em had a little blood flowing. And it was scary, because we were in such a desolate place there. I was scared by the whole thing. It happened outside, on the balcony of the guest house." The crew then returned for the day to Los Angeles, taking Douglas with them, but everyone came back the next day and the incident was promptly forgotten.
Susan Douglas related another incident during filming that illustrated either Oboler's attention to detail or his recklessness: In a scene in which Douglas' character is running with a baby, "...they gave me a baby! I asked Arch, 'Why are we not using a doll? You can't even see it.' He said, 'No, no. I want you to "feel" this baby.' I said, 'could I meet the mother that's stupid enough to allow an actress to run with a month-and-a-half-old baby?' I mean, I was supposed to fall with the baby! I could never understand that! But Oboler was a stickler for things like that, and I suppose that, if the mother was willing..."
Critics of the day almost unanimously found the film slow and depressing. In the New York Times review, Bosley Crowther wrote of the five survivors that "...these people are such a wretched crew that the skeptic is well provoked to wonder whether it wouldn't be better if everyone were killed. ...The five people whom [Oboler] has selected to forward the race of man are so cheerless, banal, and generally static that they stir little interest in their fate. Furthermore, Mr. Oboler has imagined so little of significance for them to do in their fearfully unique situation that there is nothing to be learned from watching them." TIME Magazine was dismissive, saying that "Five tries to imagine what life would be like for the last five survivors of a worldwide atomic catastrophe. Life, it seems, would be pretty dull." But the reviewer did find some scenes effective, such as the "...well-shot, eerie scenes as the heroine revisits the ghost city in the grotesque attitudes of suddenly interrupted life." Variety found the film "intriguing in theme, but depressing in its assumption," and that the principal criticism of the film was in "its dearth of action."
Several movies followed in the 1950s that also dealt with a handful of human survivors on Earth, and since no way was found to treat the subject matter any more cheerfully than was on exhibit in Five, the critical reaction leveled against this first example now seems overly harsh. Nevertheless, Phil Hardy writes in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies that "Oboler's film is little but a filmed debate about humanity regenerating rather than an account of the inevitable destruction of humanity that atomic warfare must entail. The result is a simplistic film, made even more so by Oboler's arch moralizing about his survivors and which, unlike the similarly intentioned The World, the Flesh and the Devil, is weighed down by its liberal framework. Accordingly, in contrast to Roger Corman's far more exploitative visions of the end of the world (for example, The Day the World Ended, 1955 or The Last Woman on Earth, 1960), the film, despite its seriousness, wears its hearts too much on its sleeve to animate an audience. In short, the film's arguments are too pat and its characters too stereotyped to penetrate the prejudices of its intended audience."
Oboler is clearly aiming for allegory in his treatment of nuclear survivors when he concocts a weapon that disintegrates the flesh of human beings, but leaves other vegetable and mineral matter intact. (Of course, this decision also allows the frugal filmmaker to avoid creating expensive special effects of widespread destruction). In his book Nuclear War Films, Ernest F. Martin calls the movie "fatally flawed" and takes Oboler's intentions much too literally when he says the film "...attempts to depict an outrageously absurd reality of a nuclear aftermath in a romantic, emotional manner, suggesting mankind will continue no matter what." Here Martin seems to dismiss a valid approach to the scenario, although he does emphasize the lack of visual punch in Oboler's film and makes a good point when he writes that "the most moving and effective scene in Five occurred when Eric and Rosanne were moving through a dead city, past busses, cars littered with skeletons, in a macabre search for the girl's husband. Here the film achieves some visual impact."
Oboler continued with a sporadic and peculiar directing career. He returned to the science fiction genre twice; in The Twonky (1953), Hans Conried stars as a college professor doing battle with his living television set, and in The Bubble (1966), a young couple stumble onto a small town which has been encapsulated and turned into a zoo by an unseen alien presence. The latter film was Oboler's second in 3-D. His most successful film was Bwana Devil (1952), which was filmed independently in NaturalVision 3-D and picked up for distribution by United Artists its enormous success at the box-office sparked the 3-D boom of the 1950s.
Producer/ Director: Arch Oboler
Screenplay: Arch Oboler
Music: Henry Russell
Cinematography: Sid Lubow, Louis Clyde Stoumen
Editing: John Hoffman, Ed Spiegel, Arthur Swerdloff
Art Direction: Arch Oboler
Cast: William Phipps (Michael), Susan Douglas (Roseanne Rogers), James Anderson (Eric), Charles Lampkin (Charles), Earl Lee (Mr. Barnstaple).
by John M. Miller