Seven Days to Noon (1950, John & Roy Boulting)
Seven Days to Noon is a London story, a postwar story, a story of insanity as a protest against insanity — taking the mantle of the crackerjack thrillers Alfred Hitchcock once made at Gaumont, it compresses the broad eccentricity of a singular city in a singular crisis down to 94 minutes. It is a film of its time — a nuclear scientist with the keys to the British atom bomb kingdom is fed up with toying with the fate of humanity itself and goes rogue, sending threatening letters and going into hiding with one of the (fictitious) miniature bombs, claiming he will detonate it if the UK does not cease its nuclear program. Neither the utter despair of the man in question and thus the film nor the sense of futile maintenance of a calm status quo could likely be so convincing at any time besides Europe after WWII, the world still hung over from doom and dread and death everywhere, but directors John and Roy Boulting are acutely aware enough of the human anguish and fear motivating each and every character in the picture that the film has nevertheless remained a universal testament to just the sort of paranoia that has, in its deepest heart, a shred of horrible truth.
Fed up, tightly wound Professor Willingdon (one lovably frustrated Barry Jones) has lost his grip on nothing — purposeful and cold and quite logical, he’s operating on philosophies that make at least partial sense to anyone who believes in peace and the future of humankind — except irony: his answer to a refusal to disarm and dismantle is, apparently, to kill everyone within a large radius. The film’s broader view of the occupants of the city being cast into a possible doom by his actions is more even-tempered; always droll and blackly pessmistic, these people also have hearts and minds that need to thrive. They have voices.
As within the absolute destruction at the end of The Bridge on the River Kwai, there’s a sense that all ideas of life itself, of property and pride and survival and the will and urge to destroy, have become conflated in some confused jumble of faiths and principles. There’s no obvious solution; the bombs, we already know even in this fictional narrative, will continue to exist. But in some small way, it is necessary to save what can be saved, and for this reason the film pulls off its most difficult conceit: that we must cast a man whose feelings of depression and detachment are completely understandable as the villain, that we must yearn for his capture and his disarmament as though our own hides were at stake. There’s not the respite here to let us breathe a true sigh of relief, only a momentary reprieve — only the impression that something darkly inevitable has been temporarily offset by procedural intelligence, the same force that gave rise to the bomb itself.
As a thriller more than as a social comment, Seven Days is some kind of extraordinary thing. Gripping and breathless, it anticipates the intricate, riveting parallel stories of The Day of the Jackal as well as the urban malaise of Se7en and Frenzy. But the Boultings work hard to present a full picture of this city and its people in the relevant period. That traditional, Ealing Studios-like London gallows humor and marked individuality gives it the bulk of its magic, thanks in large part to a wonderfully offbeat cast of characters who, like the best fleeting glimpses of earthy reality in films like this, each seem a world unto themselves and make a major impression. Think of the strange barber, the stranger bed & breakfast owner, the pushy lady wandering the city with little dog in tow. It’s she whose final moment of ecstasy — alone with her relief when the sirens stop — gives what feels not just like the most beautiful possible end to this picture but acts as a true goodbye from Britain to the war, a cultural watershed to begin the latter half of the twentieth century.
The Scotland Yard investigation takes up the bulk of the narrative and is absorbing in its procedural detail and fascinating glimpse into how nuclear armament was perceived at the time — when we briefly visit a veiled movie variation of the UK Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, we can almost sense the weight of the room slash the world resting on the shoulders of everyone who walks in or out, or is forced to work long nights and stay. Because the film doesn’t demonize its villain, it seems atypically realistic for the crazed-psycho-threatening-world-with-bomb genre, but one wishes it did a more complete job of showing sensitivity to the man’s conflicted pacifist ideology rather than just showing it in action and dismissing it. A slightly nasty misogyny runs through it too — the culprit’s wife appears in exactly one scene — but it’s hard to fault the film when it’s focused so intently on drawing its catastrophic scenario without sentiment or padding, and carries tension to the last moments.
Seven Days to Noon was shot by the great Gilbert Taylor, and you can tell; like all of his black & white films, it has an energy that seeps from the screen from title sequence to sad, inevitable conclusion; though he captures something eerily far gone in Barry Jones’ eyes, he’s more at home traversing these streets, these landmarks, abandoned churches and tiny pubs and making us want to grab and hold on to every quickly glimpsed thing so as to lose none of it. It would seem too much of a rote insight to argue that London is the key oddball character in a film full of memorable oddballs, but suffice it to say that it documents with true visual poetry and true manic speed a place teeming with life, a place that would seem almost by default to resist the idea of being wiped clean. This couldn’t happen in London. Of course it couldn’t. But it nearly does — and that, in turn, seems so believable as to lend the entire production the quality of a nightmare, the pregnancy of Hitchcock’s Sabotage and nearly as many mixed-up, conflicted sympathies. Fun and exciting as the film is, it’s ultimately an emotionally unresolved lament.
Watching the winners of the Best Screenplay Oscar in order, this comes up just after another very deserving thriller that similarly explores, on the other side of the Atlantic, an infrastructure in action, imperfect but functional. Panic in the Streets is no more entertaining or endearingly strange than Seven Days, but it’s striking how Elia Kazan’s film was able to fuse the look and feel of a crisis, a city and a time with meaningful characterization, something that the Boultings’ movie only infrequently touches. An outbreak of Bubonic plague is something we hate to imagine but that we also can cope with, in the sense that we trust a system that can contain it. Nuclear war is something we are not designed to rationalize as human beings; its grave implications are so absolute that it can seem as though even when looking directly at it, we somehow are telling ourselves it isn’t real. By creating a character whose real and pressing terror at the truth of his profession is difficult to quarrel with and forming a clinical, righteous thriller around his capture (if not his silencing), there’s a disturbing feeling that the filmmakers have reinforced an unhealthy reality of the time. In the end, this may be the point, but if it’s shatteringly tense to see a small confrontation between a disturbed man, his daughter and the police elevated to a potential world-ending scenario, it’s also depressing to be reminded in such clear terms that the world we lived in then and the one we live in now is driven so completely by who is in power, by who has the ability to push the button, and who could do so at just about any moment.
[Unfortunately I was only able to screen this film in an improper aspect ratio of 1.78, with the top and bottom of every single shot cropped off. I doubt it affected my opinion of the film too much but just in the interest of disclosure, there you go.]