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Arch Oboler's Five is not the first end-of-the-world film, but it is the first American film to end it all by nuclear holocaust. Five opens on the familiar mushroom cloud followed by a montage of the wonders of the world and the landmarks of civilization, which are scrubbed free of human habitation with a few simple visual effects and the savage scream of a whipping wind. The title, as you likely guessed, refers the number of people in the cast, but as the winds die down there is just a single, lone woman (Susan Douglas) dazed and terrified and stumbling through the abandoned relics of human habitation desperate to find another human. When, after taking refuge in handsome house on a hill, she finally finds a fellow survivor (William Phipps), she falls into a state of shock. (The scene calls to mind the opening of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead fifteen year later; one wonders if it's a matter of inspiration or simply a shared sense of terror.)

They are the first two of the five who slowly converge on the home in wilderness: Roseanne (Douglas), a pregnant woman desperate to know if her husband survived; Michael (Phipps), a working class philosopher ready to build a home far away from the dead cities; Charles (Charles Lampkin), a black ex-G.I. who worked in a menial position at a bank with the aged Mr. Barnstaple (Earl Lee), who has sunk into a state of denial; and German mountain climber Eric (James Anderson), an arrogant racist with delusions of genetic superiority. For all they (or we) know, they are the only humans left alive in world.

Arch Oboler made his reputation as a radio innovator, most notably for his hit series Lights Out, which he wrote and produced. According to Oboler historian Matthew Rovner, Five was in part inspired by his earlier radio play The Word, the story of a newlywed couple who awaken to find they are the only humans left in a deserted New York City after the population mysteriously vanishes. Five is more allegorical than realistic, full of debates on morality and responsibility in the face of human extinction. In one lovely interlude, Charles Lampkin (a jazz musician and Julliard graduate) recites James Weldon Johnson's poem "Creation" while he looks over the potential of the new Eden.

Michael, who was in the Empire State Building when the end of the world came and made his way across the continent to this house on the California coast, has seen the urban devastation and has no interest in entering the cities to scavenge food. The closest he gets is the occasional visit to a local country store for canned goods (the sign in the door reads "Back in 5 minutes," a bit of grim humor in an otherwise humorless film). Think of him as the film's nature boy, eager to return to the earth and turn this outpost into a farm. Eric was at the top of Mount Everest when the bombs hit and he made he way, alone, to the Pacific Ocean and flew solo across the sea (one of the film's biggest stretches in credulity). He's Michael's opposite, a thrill-seeker and a social animal who craves attention and creature comforts. It's like he has no identity outside of civilization and he tries to convince Roseanne to return to the dead city with him, where they can play king of the world amidst the skeletons of the old world. They define the film's philosophical contrast between an existence built on cooperation and community versus the singular desires of the individual acting in his own interests. For her part, Roseanne represents the only hope for the survival of the human race: a fertile womb.

Oboler produced the low budget production himself outside of Hollywood, casting relative unknowns onscreen and drawing his crew from filmmaking students at USC, and largely shot most of the film on his own ranch, predominantly in and around his guesthouse (built by Frank Lloyd Wright), built on a hill overlooking a magnificent forest. For all of his budgetary limitations, it's a strikingly atmospheric and handsome film and Oboler creates an eerie sense isolation with simple techniques. The pristine wilderness looks untouched by man or war, but there are no animals in this Eden, just birds, heard on the soundtrack but never seen. The few city scenes are silent but for a hollow wind, which accentuates the sense of urban desertion and desolation, and empty but for the cars left on the streets and the occasional skeletons of the victims, who seem to have died instantly. And while the film is rife with high-minded debates, the more immediate reality is more often suggested than confronted. Radiation poisoning is a mortal threat and the characters can be seen checking themselves for the telltale sores and boils that will mark their doom. And though it's never stated, Michael's avoidance of the city is likely fueled by his suspicions that radiation is worse in the urban areas targeted by the bombs. Oboler ends the film on a note of hope, but he takes an unexpectedly grim path to it.

The low budget, black and white film, presented in the original 1.33:1 Academy ratio, appears to be mastered from a print with grit in some scenes (it looks like it could have been in the camera negative) and what could be emulsion damage or degradation in other spots, but for the most part it looks fine. The disc features the original trailer and a couple of tongue-in-cheek promotional featurettes for Sony's "Martini Movies" series of releases.

For more information about Five, visit Sony Pictures. To order Five, go to TCM Shopping.

by Sean Axmaker