He Watched It Sober.

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     “I’ve got to find out once and for all about those other people ... I owe it to them ... I owe it to myself.”

-- Roseanne, the last woman on Earth    




Gonzoid Cinema




American Gothic 2.0


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Sights &
 Arch Oboler Productions /
 Columbia Pictures

Lights Out:
The Films of
Arch Oboler.

Strange Holiday


The Arnello Affair


The Twonky

The Bubble


Our feature begins with a bang -- several of them, actually, and big ones at that, as the whole world self-destructs under the shadows of multiple mushroom clouds ... And after the air-raid sirens fade, civilization ceases and the radioactive dust settles, the world is eerily silent save for an angry wind and the soft, apprehensive steps of a lone survivor as she forlornly searches the countryside for any other signs of life. Tired, filthy, and all kinds of fraught, we're not sure what keeps this shell-shocked woman putting one foot in front of the other, until we get a closer look at her in profile and notice that she is not quite terminally pregnant.

How long this search has been going on is hard to say, but as she crests another hill, passing another derelict car filled with the bleached bones of its former occupants, her pace quickens when she hears the faint sound of a church bell ... Following the noise into a small, one street town, where everywhere you look finds dire hints of the impending apocalypse come to pass, her demeanor becomes even more desperate and agitated as the village proves deserted, the bell triggered by its tether tangled in a tree, swaying in the breeze. Stumbling into the middle of the street, she cries out for help to anyone who can hear -- again, and again, and again. But there is no answer, save for her own echo.

Moving on, with another piece of herself whittled away, the expectant mother aimlessly winds her way further up into the hills until zeroing in on a large cabin, perched atop a peak overlooking the valley below. Expecting to find it empty, too, she is not disappointed. However, there are signs that someone might have been there, even recently. But before she can properly process the evidence she's seeing -- and I'm not even sure if she can, the last woman on Earth hears someone at the door...


As a writer and radio personality, Arch Oboler equaled -- and some would argue, bettered -- his contemporary, Orson Wells. As a filmmaker ... well, perhaps not so much. 

Like Wells, Oboler first came to prominence over the radio airwaves. Selling his first script while still in high school, by 1936, Oboler soon carved out a niche for himself writing scripts for Wyliss Cooper's Lights Out, a twisted and offbeat anthology program for NBC that dealt with the macabre invading everyday life. And when Cooper was drawn to Hollywood, where he would eventually script the likes of Son of Frankenstein and the Bela Lugosi serial, The Phantom Creeps, NBC turned the control switch for Lights Out over to their resident mad-boy genius, who opened each episode thusly:

"This is Arch Oboler bringing you another of our series of stories of the unusual, and once again we caution you: These Lights Out stories are definitely not for the timid soul. So we tell you calmly and very sincerely, if you frighten easily, turn off your radio now."

And pretty gruesome they were, too. For example, in the episode The Dark, when two paramedics arrive at an old house, inside they find a hysterical woman and the body of a man that appears to have been turned inside out -- who, upon further inspection, is still alive! And as our protagonists watch in horror, the discombobulated body tries desperately to move! And while the first person narration gives us the grisly details of the scene, the Sound-F/X techs help paint an even more ghastlier picture for our ears as they discover the reason for this malediction: a strange black fog that quickly envelopes and detonates the cackling woman, and soon enough, overcomes the medics; and then the episode ends as our narrator is overwhelmed by this malignant essence, leaving us with his desperate gurgles as his body painfully redefines itself. Bleaugh! But as nasty as that one was, Oboler's most famous chiller was probably The Chicken Heart ... Taking a cue from his rival's broadcast of The War of the Worlds, the snowball is already rolling downhill when a reporter phones in a report that some crackpot's scientific experiment has gone horribly awry ... Somehow, through some means, a piece of poultry is growing both exponentially and uncontrollably, devouring anything and everything to add to its ever-expanding mass ... As its creator pleads with the authorities, he lays out the worst case scenario if the mass isn't stopped: the entire world will be consumed and knocked off its axis in less than six months. Alas, no one believes the true danger until it is too late. And as the giant, undulating blob spreads over the city, the county, and eventually the state, the reporter calls in the scene from a circling airplane, an airplane that soon develops fatal engine trouble, and we close on the sputtering engine being overtaken by the deafening pulse of the giant, all-consuming mass.

Thump-thump ... Thump-thump ... Thump-thump ...

But like his future TV equivalent, Rod Serling, Oboler had a lot more to offer on the human condition than just creeping the hell out of it. His programs often railed against societies ills and the horrors of fascism, currently overrunning Europe at the time, and people's inherent tendency to meekly follow the herd and do as they were told to maintain the status quo -- no matter what the cost. In fact, Oboler's first foray outside of radio was to co-script the anti-Nazi propaganda piece, Escape, for MGM, where Rod Taylor heads to Germany and runs into a brick wall of silence while trying to find his missing mother, until he painstakingly pieces together that she was arrested for hiding Jewish refugees and is scheduled to be executed -- unless he can rescue her in time. Then in 1942, the brass at General Motors, while retooling for the war-effort, and still stinging from the [well-founded] notion that they were German-sympathizers, gave Oboler his first directing gig, another propaganda piece, This Precious Freedom, where Claude Raines returns from a fishing trip and finds his hometown overrun by Nazi fifth-columnists. (A motif Jack Warner would repeat in the 1950's with Red Nightmare.) But GM never released the short and sold it to MGM, which sat on it until selling it back to Oboler and Raines, who then expanded it to feature-length and released it as the surreal Strange Holiday, where they take things a step further and imagine the entire United States under a totalitarian regime.

After that, Oboler bounced around Hollywood for a bit, until settling back at MGM for a string of offbeat film noirs based on his old radio plays; a win/win for the Studio, guaranteeing at least some box-office due to Oboler's entrenched popularity. Alter Ego begat Bewitched, the tale of good girl Phyllis Thaxter, a schizophrenic, whose psychotic break on the eve of her engagement soon finds her wandering the darkened streets of Noirville, constantly at war with her bad girl alter-ego, voiced by Audrey Totter, whose assertions lead our heroine through a trio of men as her psychiatrist and fiancé try to put all the fragmented pieces back together again ... Heavily influenced by the work of Val Lewton and Jacques Tournuer, Bewitched has a nice, smoky feel to it but [too] often tends to bog down and grind itself up with its dialogue heavy, tell-don't-show, radio-play roots. The Arnello Affair -- based on I'll Tell My Husband, falls into the same trap, despite an interesting twist where an unfulfilled housewife falls for the wrong guy and quickly plummets down the road to ruin. Critical reaction to both films were mixed, but they still made money, meaning MGM wanted more of the same. Oboler, however, was tired of rehashing his old stuff and was eager to try something new. And after bidding the Studio a fond farewell, took a shot at independent filmmaking.

At the same time, barely five years after the bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II, the world was once more embroiled in a live-action shooter over differing political ideals in Korea. And as General MacArthur called for President Truman to authorize the use of nuclear weapons on strategic targets in China, the notion of the world being reduced to radioactive cinder became an alarmingly distinct possibility. And as the Cold War brewed ever hotter, and an entire nation naively Ducked and Covered, Arch Oboler decided the world needed to see what it would be like for the wretched survivors of a nuclear holocaust came to pass.

Predating the likes of The Day the World Ended and Night of the Living Dead, and post-dating the likes of Lifeboat and Sahara, Oboler's Five would be a similar study in group-dynamics where a small, diverse group of survivors face, and ultimately/hopefully try to overcome, some great cataclysm ... A tempest without/crisis within backdrop, where the hazards of underlying prejudices and baser instincts threaten to unravel things from the inside out in the face of the greater overall good of the group. And in this particular case, the impending implosion of the last five surviving members of the human race.

After that harrowing opening, where our heroine, Roseanne (Susan Douglas), discovers that she is no longer alone, she faints dead away at the sight of Michael (William Phipps), who was out rounding up more supplies from the nearby town. As she slowly recovers, the two survivors swap survival stories; Roseanne apparently shielded awaiting a series of X-Rays, while Michael was stuck in an elevator in the bowels of the Empire State Building, which triggered a similarly gruesome, cross-country odyssey of baring witness to all the lingering death and destruction from radiation poisoning. As more time passes, we also find out that the cabin was specifically targeted by Roseanne, as it belonged to her reclusive sister, who apparently didn't survive. And though Michael seems content to stay put and scrape out a living there, Roseanne is obsessively insistent on returning to the city once she's strong enough to see if her husband survived as well. Having traversed through several dead metropolitan centers already, Michael refuses to stomach those sights, sounds and smells again, and does his best to dissuade his new companion of her pie-in-the-sky notions. In fact, you get the sense that Michael would like to get his Adam and Eve on, but every attempt at any intimacy with the hot and cold running Roseanne ends in disaster, usually with her freaking out and withdrawing into near catatonia again. Obviously, this vexation leaves the kind-hearted Michael a tad frustrated, who keeps trying but ultimately fails to convince Roseanne that her husband is most assuredly dead.

Meanwhile, the meager group doubles in size when two more survivors stumble upon the cabin: the elderly Mr. Barnstable (Earl Lee) and an African American by the name of Charles (Charles Lampkin). Having been lucky enough to be in the vault when the bombs dropped, these two former bank employees found a working jeep and have been puttering around ever since, looking for other survivors. Happy to find the others -- hell, they almost accidentally ran them over, while Roseanne enters her last trimester, Michael and Charles begin work on extending the accommodations and, knowing their meager supplies will some day run out, begin clawing at the earth to see if they can get anything to grow. Not necessarily a tranquil existence, but under the circumstances, it'll do quite nicely ... Alas, the dynamic is about to shift, and not to get all biblical on you, but a familiar serpent is about to enter this new, slightly irradiated Eden and wreak all kinds of havoc.

Things begin to unravel when Barnstable, obviously on his last leg, expresses a wish to see the ocean one last time, and see it he does, barely, before expiring. But no sooner has the remaining trio buried the deceased, when the ocean suddenly washes up another survivor. Now, Eric's (James Anderson) tale of being on Mt. Everest when the war broke out, and then island jumping back to the States, to me, smacks a little of the old cock-n-bull, but when combined with his Germanic accent, the others take it at face value. And as a conflict of interest metaphor, Eric isn't very subtle as he goes all alpha-male and refuses to do any menial work, racially baits Charles, sabotages most efforts to improve their living conditions, and gets his hooks into the gullible Roseanne, playing on her desires to return to the city, wanting to take her back there for himself, where they can live like royalty. Blinded by the opportunity to finally find her husband, things are only put on hold long enough for Roseanne to deliver her baby before Eric sets into motion their escape.

Bundling Roseanne and the newborn into the jeep, Eric makes one more trip into the cabin for supplies but runs into Charles, who, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, gets knifed to death ... On the way into town, Roseanne starts to see through Eric's deviousness too late as the die is already cast. A harsh, howling wind blows through the otherwise silent canyons of the obviously dead city. Navigating in as far as the clogged and congested streets will allow, Eric orders Roseanne to stay in the jeep while he takes in the lay of the land. But recognizing a few landmarks, Roseanne, with the fussy baby gripped tightly in her arms, goes on another, gut-wrenching stroll through the skeleton strewn avenues in search of her lost husband.


Entering his place of work, she finds the remains of a secretary but the main office is empty. Silently taking in a few of her loved ones mementos -- a pipe, a pair of glasses -- this seems to jar Roseanne's memories a bit, and once more she takes to the streets and winds her way to a hospital, where, after a few suspenseful turns through the Obstetrics Ward, past the X-Ray suite, comes upon the waiting room, and finally gets the answer she's been seeking...

But with that answer, Roseanne also realizes the truth, and soon cemented to that truth, is determined to get out of this horrible place and back to the cabin. Returning to the jeep, she finds Eric greedily picking through a bag full of jewelry. Upset that she wandered off, and even more upset by her demands, Eric moves to bring her back in line with the back of his hand. But before the beat down can commence, Roseanne notices something. Eric soon sees it, too; his hand has the same blotches that Barnstable had, a tale-tell sign of terminal radiation poisoning. A quick check shows the rest of his body is completely saturated with festering lesions as well. Unable to accept this, Eric cracks and runs off screaming into the city, never to be seen again. Left alone, and unable to drive the jeep, Roseanne and the baby begin the long trek back to her sister's cabin on foot.

The trip is a long an arduous one, and sadly, at some point, we realize that the baby is no longer crying ... Back at the cabin, Michael, who found and buried Charles, is hard at work trying to reclaim the small garden that Eric destroyed. From out of the trees, Roseanne stumbles, the lifeless little form still clutched in her arms. Together, the couple bury the baby. Once that deed is done, Roseanne takes up a hoe, determined to help Michael make a go of the garden and start over from this new ground zero.

The End

Being the first post-nuclear-apocalyptic movie, Five is definitely a seminal film, and its influences, good and bad, can be seen in a lot of genre pictures that followed in its footsteps. Though it lacks the voice-overs of his earlier work, the movie still suffers from the tell don't show and spotlight sermonizing of Oboler's radio-tubed pedigree, and this kind of navel-gazing almost short-circuits any kind of allegorical-driven message the writer/director was trying to convey. Almost. What's sounds good for the ear doesn't necessarily translate well for the eye, granted, but I honestly believe that Oboler's overall sincerity, which comes through loud and clear -- especially in the subtle, cynical aspects of the world being a better place once scraped clear of any so-called civilization, when combined with that somber and downbeat ending, short-circuits any calls of pretension in my book.

Financing the picture by himself, Oboler plucked several USC film students to be his all-purpose crew and commenced to filming in and around his own property and majestic cabin retreat, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, just outside Malibu, with the deserted streets of Glendale serving as his radiation-scarred cityscape. More interested in his dialogue than anything else, as was his modus operandi [and Achilles heel], its been documented that Oboler wouldn't even watch the takes, just call action, don his headphones, and listen. And several other documented reports state that Oboler, always the perfectionist, tended to get a bit tyrannical if things didn't go exactly the way his ears wanted them to, leading to several dust-ups with both cast and crew, and one particularly ugly incident where Oboler punched assistant-editor, Arthur Swerdloff, in the face, which eventually went to litigation. Thus, with Oboler concentrating so hard on the audio, the striking look of Five must be properly credited to the work of his novice film crew, specifically cinematographers Sid Lubow and Louis Stoumen.

For the cast, even though he was on a first name basis with the likes of James Cagney and Bette Davis, Oboler, driven by his lack of budget, instead trolled the acting schools of his famous friends and cherry-picked several unknowns. And like his other films, Five centers around a tragically flawed heroine, and though rumored to have been difficult off-screen, Susan Douglas's performance on screen, book-ended by those two fabulous and inventive sequences of her stumbling around all that death and decay, is fantastic, and, I think, really grounds the movie in a delirious unreality that is hard to shake and forget. In fact, with the animosity between co-star Phipps and Douglass, and the alcohol fueled, self-destructive nature of Anderson (--who would go on to play the despicable Bob Ewell in To Kill a Mockingbird), I think this off screen acrimony actually leaks through on screen and only adds another underlying element of friction between an otherwise pat love triangle.

Once filming was completed, Oboler's troubles were far from over. Being a non-union production, the already cash-strapped entrepreneur was under constant pressure and endured a series of fines and levies. Undaunted, when it came time for the premiere, Oboler took advantage of the new medium of television, and Five became the first film to have its premiere televised nationally. But despite this initial buzz, the film failed to find an audience and quickly died at the box-office. Enter producer Sidney Pink (-- of future Reptilicus and Angry Red Planet infamy), who successfully retooled and sensationalized the advertising campaigns, allowing Five to eventually earn a modest profit for Columbia, to whom Oboler had sold the film to settle-up with the disgruntled unions.

In the end, Arch Oboler's gift of yarning a fantastic story for the ear never could find any traction when trying to translate it to the big screen. After nearly bankrupting himself with another box-office disaster in The Twonky, a prescient satirical look at the influence of the old idiot-box, Oboler's Hollywood career recovered slightly with the innovative use of the new stereo-scopic 3-D process for Bwana Devil (-- but that's another story for another day.) Beyond that, a few more cinematic missteps and a disastrous Broadway production of another cautionary tale, The Night of the Auk, left a less than stellar legacy outside of radio. Still, one cannot deny that a lot of Oboler's swings and near misses were mighty impressive misfires, and though Five might not make as favorable an impression on you as it did me, it definitely doesn't deserve the grief its accumulated over the years and is nowhere near as bad as its dubious reputation -- and definitely worth the time and effort to track down for that opening sequence alone.

FIVE (1951) Arch Oboler Productions :: Lobo Productions :: Columbia Pictures / P: Arch Oboler / D: Arch Oboler / W: Arch Oboler / C: Sid Lubow, Louis Clyde Stoumen / E: John Hoffman, Ed Spiegel, Arthur Swerdloff / M: Henry Russell / S: William Phipps, Susan Douglas, James Anderson, Charles Lampkin, Earl Lee

Posted: 10/31/09 :: Holy Crap! A New One?!?

Knuckled-out by Chad Plambeck: misspeller of words, butcher of all things grammatical, and king of the run on sentence. Copy and paste at your own legal risk. Questions? Comments? Shoot us an e-mail.
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