Five (1951) dir. Arch Oboler
Starring: Susan Douglas Rubes, William Phipps, James Anderson, Charles Lampkin
One of the most interesting films I’ve seen in a while is the rediscovered post-Apocalyptic low budget indie film “Five” from 1951. Back then there was effectively no such thing as independent film and so for Arch Oboler, a maverick writer/director and provocateur, it's a great accomplishment to treasure.
Oboler was one of the great storytellers on radio, with a reputation comparable to Orson Welles. In 1937, like Welles’ famous “War of the Worlds” broadcast Oboler incited panic with a gruesome account of a chicken heart growing enormously engulfing cities and states. Like Welles Oboler was courted by Hollywood and directed a wide range of high concept studio films, including the first-ever 3-D mainstream feature film “Bwana Devil”.
Oboler seemed to be fascinated with American post-war sociological analysis – communist and nuclear fears and the onset of the television medium. His 1945 film “Strange Holiday” starring Claude Rains depicted a man returning home from a trip in the mountains discovering America has been taken over and formed into a dictatorship – perhaps an early inspiration for John Milius’ “Red Dawn.”
In 1951’s Five, Oboler expanded on these themes of social displacement and nuclear extermination, creating arguably the first-ever ‘post-Apocalyptic’ film. Richard Matheson’s novel ‘I Am Legend’ is routinely cited as the most influential work of the genre, but Oboler’s story beats Matheson’s publication by 3 years.
It’s an austere, slow-moving, unsympathetic tragedy, in similar tone to Roman Polanski’s “Knife in the Water”. The protagonist, a pregnant Roseanne Rogers (Susan Rubes), wakes up to find her town, state, and country a desolate post-nuclear wasteland. She rooms the country looking for any other survivors. When she retreats to her Aunt’s country home in the hills and finds Michael (William Phipps) living there. Both have miraculously survived World War III. The duo then meet Oliver, an elderly banker and Charles, a humble, working class black man. The foursome work to rebuild some kind of new life in isolation of the harmful fallout of the main cities.
The harmony is shortlived when they drag Eric out of the water – a mountaineer who was scaling Everest when the bombs hit around the world. Eric’s desire to return to the cities for food is met with disagreement from the rest who fear radiation contamination. Roseanne’s desire to find her lost husband is the fuel Eric needs to break from the group, the results of which could spell doom for the rest.
The film requires some patience to get through a sometimes tediously slow first and second acts. But when the villain emerges and conflict becomes dangerous for the survivors, Oboler’s third act is so uncompromising, so unHollywood in comparison to any other film of its day it will leave a lasting impact. The conflict between Eric’s desire to go out alone to the cities vs. the group’s communal desire to feed themselves from the land suggest some subtle socialist metaphors. Few films, if any, in this genre were made with this kind of thematic depth back in 1951.
Arch Oboler’s independent production philosophy remind us of the autonomy and methodologies filmmakers like Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick employed to make their great independent films. Oboler shot the "Five" with a skeleton crew at his own Frank Lloyd Wright home in Santa Monica, his credits, in untraditional fashion at the time were listed at the end, and had titles of the cinematographer, editor and sound crew lumped together under one credit.
I haven’t seen any other films from Oboler’s filmography but from what I’ve read about his career it would seem his artistic abilities rarely matched his conceptual and thematic reach. Sony’s repackaging of this title, curiously under their kitschy ‘Martini Movies’ banner, is step in the direction to rekindling interest in this unique filmmaker. Enjoy.
“Five” is available on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment