Thursday, May 03, 2012

 

Seven Days To Noon

OK, any Londoners reading; before you sit down with a cup of tea and this cheering tale of your city facing nuclear destruction, have you voted yet? No? Then get out and do so (and here’s why)!

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll try to put a stop to that with this cosy catastrophe. It’s a thoughtful, understated but tense 1950 political thriller, so it may threaten London’s complete annihilation but, on the plus side, doesn’t have Boris or Ken in it. And though not science fiction, it was hugely influential, not least on Quatermass, The Avengers and Doctor Who, as well as films as late as, well, 28 Days Later.

BBC4 is at this moment cheering us all up at the end of election day with The End of the World? A Horizon Guide To Armageddon, so Seven Days To Noon sprang to mind; a film full of ‘firsts’ in the Armageddon genre, from the spectre of nuclear doom to an eerily deserted London, I’d been thinking about reviewing it for a little while, having recently caught it again on one of its frequent outings on Film4 (keep an eye out, if you don’t own a copy). While Advise and Consent and The Best Man, the early 1960s political thrillers I wrote about last week, were utterly American, this is incredibly British – though it mixes a queasy satire of World War II evacuations and Blitz Spirit with a looming dread of American, Russian and our own new nuclear capability. And while they had plotlines about intellectuals, this not only makes a scientist and thinker its central character, but forces the audience to consider the issues he raises. Though the conspiracy thriller rather than the lone actor comes later, and on the surface this is all stiff upper lip with a government that sternly protects the people, too, there is the subversive undercurrent that asks, like its main character, whether that government in fact wants to make us all complicit in mass murder and then see us blown to bits more comprehensively, just further down the line, which is a less reassuring subtext. While I won’t spoil the end, the way that the authorities simply abandon the plucky everywoman while the military rush about doing their thing is surely telling.

Seven Days To Noon was produced by the Boulting Brothers, perhaps best-known for their terrific version of Brighton Rock, with the story by Paul Dehn (Goldfinger, Beneath the Planet of the Apes and more) and, perhaps surprisingly, his partner, top Hammer composer-to-be James Bernard (another Quatermass connection). The film opens, quietly, with a letter posted to the Prime Minister from top British nuclear scientist Professor Willingdon (Barry Jones) – and if you thought the storyline of a terrorist walking around a big city with a nuclear bomb in their suitcase was new to the Twenty-First Century, think again. He’s come to the conclusion that the work he does is profoundly wrong, and gives the Government an ultimatum: give up nuclear weapons in one week, or have one explode at Westminster. Hence the title. And the film is all about the fallout from that ‘simple’ demand: why did he do it? How can he be stopped? And what will the effect be on everyone else, physically and philosophically?

Joining Jones’ excellent, tortured Willingdon among the stars are André Morell, at the end of the 1950s the definitive Professor Quatermass with a remarkably similar moral quandary, but here playing stern, serious and exceptionally well-spoken Superintendent Folland, who’s put in charge of the manhunt; and the other standout character is Olive Sloane’s Goldie Phillips, there as the spirit of London, a good-time girl a little past her best, sympathetic to those in need but distinctly stroppy at the thought of being blown to bits. She’s hugely endearing in an old-fashioned way, but also has some striking undercurrents to her for a film made in 1950: not only is the ‘everyman’ character a woman, but we’re meant to identify not with the genteel young lady but one for whom every implication is used to get past the censor that she’s been around a bit, and good for her. Though I’m not convinced by Goldie picking up Willingdon in the first place – she doesn’t know how vital he is until he’s much later and more threatening, so he doesn’t seem much of a catch for her. Don’t fancy hers much.

More Betrayal, Vicar?

The crucial scene for me is one that in most films would be a flashback, but instead is a previous conversation with Willingdon related by a friend when Superintendent Folland comes calling in search of information. And the friend betraying a confidence happens to be the Professor’s local vicar, who’s caught doing some manual work and so for a moment presumed not posh enough to be among the clergy (ho ho. Look, most of the humour in the film’s better than this).
“And I’m going to be quite frank. His disappearance endangers – the national safety.”
“What is it you want to know?”

“…What would you do if you were convinced the results of your life’s work were being put to an evil purpose?”
It sets out clearly the moral argument without having to have Willingdon himself confronted by Folland early on, and is a powerful moment, though one of the film’s more dated. It also makes me curl my lip rather at the Church of England; I was brought up Catholic. A Catholic priest wouldn’t let a little thing like nuclear Armageddon pry a confession out of him, still less when only hinted at by a police officer. It’s notable that Barry Jones’ portrayal of a mild, gentle man driven to extremes carries almost all the different notes of religion in the film, with the vicar’s established religion coming across far more as ‘establishment’ than ‘belief’; there’s an element of the more modern depiction of any passionately religious person as slightly mad (or at least of the caricature British view that you should be wary of anyone who believes in anything too much), but he also confronts you – if you were involved in a threat to kill millions of people, what should you do? And is it any more wrong to mount that threat on your own behalf rather than the government’s? Willingdon’s overwhelming guilt, at least, is very recognisable to a Catholic (though his despair is a sin). The film does pull its punches slightly in suggesting that Willingdon may just be mad – everyone’s first conclusion – rather than making a coldly sane decision; is he having a breakdown from the start, or is it only the pressure of his having to sustain his crushingly heavy decision for a week, alone, that causes him to start pacing all night, whispering Bible verses as a trailer for the film’s ultimate climax in a church?

Also dated is the convention that the Professor has a pretty daughter with no noticeable character of her own but a boyfriend who’s a leading character, though at least here he’s only a younger scientist there to provide exposition, rather than a square-jawed hero in a ripped shirt (I’m not certain he even loosens his tie).

From this point on, the film is in essence a race against time to find a lone man in London, with first an attempt to keep it all quiet, then the city eventually put through total evacuation – save for Superintendent Folland, and the army – as it becomes clear that he means it, and won’t be easy to find. The stark black and white and frequent night filming all around London, some of it still bomb-damaged by much less ferocious ordinance in the last War, gives it all a tense atmosphere, but some of the film is also surprisingly witty.

There aren’t a lot of jokes in the script, with Goldie too plucky to be just a ‘comedy character’, though two characters do stand out – a man with a “The End Is Nigh” sign who keeps trying to get on his evacuation bus with it and being told to leave it behind, and who to add to the incongruity looks far too like Ronnie Corbett for an actor in 1950, and Joan Hickson’s Mrs Peckett, Willingdon’s temporary landlady. One of the few people less posh in this film than you’d expect – a gossipy Londoner with a fag surgically attached to her lip, a far cry from Miss Marple – she’s the most overtly comedic character, snooty, intrusive and paranoid, a caricature landlady. Suspicious when “Mr Richardson” (or is it “Mr Richards”?) doesn’t want to hand over his ration book, she manages to miss all the “Missing Scientist” posters, but runs to the police after “Moon Maniac” “LANDLADY KILLER AT LARGE” headlines in the Express!
“I thought you might be an actor, and of course I won’t have theatricals in the house.”
Most of the wit is in the cinematography; just as the camerawork prowls the shadows and shows us tormented faces, it can also brush past a petty crook or an inappropriate Atomic Racer game, or juxtapose The Garter and Slipper club with God Is Love, then listen to the Prime Minister’s broadcast under a dinosaur skeleton – before, along with “The End Is Nigh” signs, whole piles of items there’s no room to bring on the evacuation transport, from pets to sporting equipment.

To add to Joan Hickson, who was never young, there are many young faces in early roles – look out for Joss Ackland as an eager junior copper, or John Stratton (another to get a major role in Quatermass and the Pit at the other end of the decade) as a not eager at all young soldier, and at the end Victor Maddern as another young soldier at the end of his tether. And then there’s Geoffrey Keen, the thuggish, flag-waving, bomb-cheering ‘man in the street’ (or the pub) who decades later is the perishing Minister in the James Bond films that not even a change of government can get rid of, and Willingdon puts him (and the audience, who he’s almost speaking to direct when he angrily tells the man that he should be made to think about the things he says) down flat:
“You don’t understand what you’re saying… What you’re suggesting would mean the total destruction of mankind.”

After Noon – An Influential Film

As I noted above, Seven Days To Noon had a remarkably wide influence on British cinema and television – most obviously in a host of nuclear blackmail stories, but several more particular and noticeable scripts, especially those more science fiction than just setting topical concern two years ahead. Here are a few of the most striking ones, and two which I hope to review quite shortly (but which?)…

The Quatermass Experiment (1953, and 1955 film): in itself massively influential, but also borrowing a scientist chased through bomb-site London, a scientist lead and moral grappling, a finale in a big church, an apocalyptic threat and, at one remove, André Morell.

The Avengers – November Five (1963): another nuclear bomb threat to London from within the establishment.

Doctor Who – The Dalek Invasion of Earth (1964): similar scenes of pursuit through a deserted London, though this is more of a Nazi than a nuclear parable (but Terry Nation always likes his countdowns and his radiation threats).

The Avengers – The Morning After (1969): a small town rather than London is evacuated under nuclear threat by a figure of trust, though the manhunt isn’t for the ‘villain’. This one (as Tat Wood pointed me to in his revised Doctor Who guide About Time 3) even uses footage shot for Seven Days To Noon as part of its own evacuation scenes. And Joss Ackland.

Doctor Who – Invasion of the Dinosaurs (1974): though very much by way of The Morning After for its conspiracy elements, this still recognisably borrows from the original source, as well, with London evacuated under a different sort of terror threat, and once again has people in positions of trust claiming to do good, by their lights, by means of mass murder.

The New Avengers – Sleeper (1976): London asleep rather than evacuated, though less interestingly than the very similar two immediately previous variations.

And films continue to use both the imagery and the moral complexity, from 28 Days Later to Watchmen

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