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Cult Movie Picks - March 2014
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Panic in Year Zero

American moviegoers shifted their anxieties with relative ease from feared Axis attacks during WWII to the Cold War expectation of balls-out thermonuclear war with the Soviet Union. Financed by American International Pictures, Panic in Year Zero! (1962) came at the tail end of a vivid corpus of Truman/Eisenhower era fear films inspired by the detonation of the A-bomb and subsequent reports of its horrific radioactive consequences. Like the atom itself, this science fiction subgenre split into wildly divergent schools of thought. While one imagined atomic radiation breeding monsters of sufficient scale to smash our comparatively puny metropolis to crumbs – think The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), Them! (1954), Tarantula (1955) – the other eschewed a big canvas to etch portraits of regular folk sitting out Armageddon's cool-down. Produced just a tick of the clock past Trinity, Arch Oboler's Five (1951) stamped a template to which filmmakers would return for decades: a small group of strangers thrown by circumstance into a common cause to mourn the end of days and build a new tomorrow. Roger Corman's Day the World Ended (1955, remade in 1967 as In the Year 2889) added a monster to Oboler's mix but changed little else while his Last Woman on Earth (1960) winnowed the number of survivors to a crowded three. By the end of the 1950s, the major studios got in on the act with Stanley Kramer's all star On the Beach and Ranald MacDougall's arty but thoughtful The World, the Flesh and the Devil (both 1959) as atomic fear films refocused from big bugs to the plight of the little guy.

Although they didn't come much smaller than Jack Arnold's The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), in which the "monster" of the piece is an irradiated average Joe (Grant Williams) who reduces in size to a pinpoint to illustrate the individual's diminished stature in the ever more depersonalized modern world, Panic in Year Zero's Harry Baldwin (Ray Milland) is more illustrative of the typical pre-Road Warrior (1982) post-apocalyptic protagonist. Unpleasantly surprised by the appearance of a mushroom cloud over Los Angeles while on a fishing trip with his wife (The Asphalt Jungle's [1950] Jean Hagen) and teenage son (a pre-Beach Party [1963] Frankie Avalon) and daughter (Spider Baby's [1968] Mary Mitchel), Harry is spared instant death but finds himself cruelly cut off from the things that make him a man of importance and influence.

By 1962, Milland could no doubt relate to Harry's feelings of isolation and helplessness. The Wales-born actor was by then thirty years out from his 1929 film debut and two decades past his Best Actor Oscar® for The Lost Weekend (1945). In his heyday a leading man of considerable charm but easy irritability, Milland suffered from baldness that would knock him back to second lead status by the 1950s. Deciding to become a film director and give himself roles the studios wouldn't, Milland helmed five movies between 1955 and 1968, with Panic in Year Zero! likely being the only one that even most cinephiles can name-check. Harry's intractability, misanthropy ("Idiots... fools...") and resilience make the character a good fit for Milland, who knew all too well at this point in his career that when the going gets tough the tough get going.

However titanic their stakes may have been, post-apocalypse scenarios were a boon for indie filmmakers, who could decamp to the desert with a handful of actors and a skeleton crew and let dread of the unknown ("man's greatest demoralizer") be the special effect. Exteriors for Panic in Year Zero! were filmed at Chatsworth, California's Iverson Ranch. Located twenty miles northwest of most of the studios, the ranch was a popular location for feature films and serials from the silent era through the 1960s, its rolling hills and unusual rock formations forming the backdrop for such TV series as Gunsmoke, The Virginian and Bonanza. (Not long after its use in Panic in Year Zero!, the ranch was bisected by the Simi Valley Freeway and has since been subdivided for condominiums and gated communities.)

Milland and director of photography Gilbert Warrenton (who had shot Paul Leni's Expressionistic The Man Who Laughs in 1928) get good mileage out of their obviously limited budget, relying on simple opticals to communicate the destruction of Los Angeles and letting their actors carry the rest. In its depiction of a quasi-Biblical exodus fraught with peril, Panic in Year Zero! points ahead to such later doomsday scenarios as Cornel Wilde's No Blade of Grass (1970), Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes (1977, remade in 2006) and Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later (2002), as well as to several novels by British writer J. G. Ballard, namely The Wind from Nowhere, The Drowned World and The Burning World. The relaxation of censorious standards in Hollywood allowed the film a particularly lurid advertising campaign, which foregrounded the specter of rape in Panic's "orgy of looting and lust."

Working titles for Panic in Year Zero! included the terse Survival and the pessimistic The End of the World (under which the film was re-released in 1965). Although scenarists Jay Simms (whose The Creation of the Humanoids [1962] was an unlikely mix of post-nuke fantasy and Sirkian melodrama) and John Morton receive sole screenplay credit, the team borrowed heavily from two obscure but well-regarded short stories written by novelist Ward Moore. In Lot (1953) and Lot's Daughter (1954), Moore repurposed the Biblical tale of Sodom and Gomorrah for the atomic age but the particulars were far from heavenly. Simms and Morton made use of Moore's eye-opening first act, a snaking motorcade of automobiles fleeing a devastated City of Angels, but shied away from the author's galloping cynicism and contention that family values would be thermonuclear war's first casualty.

While Panic in Year Zero! not only dilutes and denies Moore's thesis, Simms and Morton's script is not without interest. Harry Baldwin's argument that the particulars of polite society (from maintaining personal hygiene to giving thanks to "the Almighty") continue to matter even as he compromises these principals to protect his family makes for potent, thought-provoking drama even half a century after the fact. The addition of a gang of toughs spewing antiestablishment invective through a filter of beatnik rebop adds an unfortunate kitsch factor that has made Panic in Year Zero! something of a Psychotronic whipping boy (the jazzy Les Baxter score doesn't help either) but the sincerity and seriousness of the filmmakers is clear. To his credit, Milland doesn't soft pedal Harry Baldwin's innate contradictions and failings, nor does he offer his sympathetic but conflicted characters an easy out. In Panic in Year Zero!, the fact that the world ends is only the beginning.

Producers: Arnold Houghland, Lou Rusoff
Director: Ray Milland
Screenplay: John Morton, Jay Simms; Ward Moore (stories "Lot and Lot's Daughter", uncredited)
Cinematography: Gilbert Warrenton
Music: Les Baxter
Film Editing: William Austin
Cast: Ray Milland (Harry Baldwin), Jean Hagen (Ann Baldwin), Frankie Avalon (Rick Baldwin), Mary Mitchel (Karen Baldwin), Joan Freeman (Marilyn Hayes), Richard Bakalyan (Carl), Rex Holman (Mickey), Richard Garland (Ed Johnson), Willis Bouchet (Dr. Powell Strong), Neil Nephew(Andy), O.Z. Whitehead (Hogan), Russ Bender (Harkness).
BW-93m.

by Richard Harland Smith

Sources:
Richard Bakalyan interview by Justin Humphreys, Psychotronic Video, no. 25, 1997
The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction by John Clute and Peter Nichols
American Science Fiction and the Cold War by David Seed
The American Film Institute Catalogue, Feature Films 1961-1970
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