Tuesday, September 09, 2008

PERSONAL FAVES: Seven Days to Noon

Professor Willingdon (Barry Jones), in London for a political protest, sees a picture of himself in the paper. It is a picture that will soon be displayed on hoarding-sized posters throughout the city, posters bearing the stark legend ‘THIS IS THE MAN WE WANT’. Realising his moustache is his most identifiable feature, Willingdon hastens to a barber’s. Emerging, one close shave later (he’ll have close shaves of an entirely different variety later), he pauses to get his bearings, then heads off past an undertaker’s. A sign in the window of this grim establishment reads ‘FUNERALS AT GOVERNMENT PRICES’.

Willingdon is wanted by the police. His letter to the Prime Minister (Ronald Adam), demanding Britain’s immediate cessation of atomic weapons manufacture is bad enough. That he has been part of the very research team dedicated to creating them is worse. The really unforgivable sin, however, is his appropriation of the one of the devices – which he intends to detonate in Greater London, destroying a twelve-mile radius of the capital, if the PM doesn’t publicly commit to disarmament.

CID bod Inspect Folland (Andre Morrell) finds himself heading up the manhunt. Folland enlists the help of Willingdon’s research assistant, Hugh Cross (Steve Lane) – a man already professionally compromised through his relationship with Willingdon’s daughter Ann (Sheila Manahan) – but their efforts bear little fruit. A brief sighting of the professor ends in his escape. A call from his suspicious landlady (a terrific Joan Hickson, a TV star in later life headlining the ‘Miss Marple’ adaptations) results in a heavy-handed police presence: Willingdon quietly slips away and finds lodgings with faded middle-aged ‘showgirl’ Goldie (Olive Sloane).

With the clock ticking and police activity yielding nothing (a search of a bathhouse, a walrus-moustached overweight man blustering impotently, waspishly satirises the opening sequence of Powell & Pressburger’s ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’), the military are called in. Plans for the evacuation of London are put into action. Two railway workers paste destination numbers onto carriages – “Remember last time we did this?” one of them asks. “It was Dunkirk.”

Dunkirk is referenced more than once in the film. Wartime imagery is everywhere (the Powell & Pressburger send-up is apposite: this is an England far removed from the bucolic idylls of The Archers; an England, in fact, which is as dangerous as any other country that has access to atomic weaponry): soldiers search a deserted city, going house-to-house; Willingdon shelters in an abandoned church, a sign outside soliciting donations towards its rebuilding (‘BLITZED TEN YEARS AGO’); a looter is gunned down without a word of warning; a station platform stands empty apart from a sign reading ‘ALL ANIMALS TO BE LEFT HERE’ and, beneath it, a menagerie of now-ownerless pets, mewling and whining and barking as they pace their cages.

‘Seven Days to Noon’ was made in 1950.

Let me repeat that. ‘Seven Days to Noon’ – with its anti-atomic weaponry message, its scenes of evacuation, its threat to the nation’s capital, its unheroic soldiers (one paws through someone’s underwear drawer, stealing a pair of knickers; another raids a wine cellar; all complain about their duty to king and country) – was made just five years after the end of the war.

I can only imagine what it would have been like to see the film on its original release – particularly at a cinema in London. I imagine it was like having a couple of hundred volts applied to a still open wound (bomb sites would scar London for two decades after Nazi Germany’s surrender), the too-real nightmares of only a few years ago howling back at you from the cinema screen.

John and Roy Boulting’s film is perhaps the riskiest choice in a career which pretty much baited controversy. ‘Brighton Rock’, only John’s second film as director, was film noir writ as brutal and unflinchingly as anything America produced; their string of acerbic satires – ‘Private’s Progress’, ‘Lucky Jim’, ‘I’m All Right Jack’ (to the best of my knowledge, the only film to make a villain of the fork lift truck) and ‘Heavens Above’ – stick it to the military, academia, trade unionism and the church respectively.

In the pantheon of great partnerships from the golden age of British film-making, Powell & Pressburger melded a nostalgic Home Counties mindset with a distinctly European aesthetic (sometimes successfully, sometimes awkwardly), while Launder & Gilliat sneaked a sly subversiveness under the radar of populist entertainment. The Boulting Brothers, however, squared off against the realities of post-war life in a less-than-Great Britain. Mostly, they used the comforting buffer of (albeit razor-sharp) comedy. In ‘Seven Days to Noon’ – a film without heroes or villains – the gloves came off: not only were they were serious, not only did they ask some big questions, but they created a bloody good thriller that – despite its occasionally dated moments – comes across, and does so emphatically with repeated viewings, as years ahead of its time.


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Viktoria said...

Can you tell me what kind of soldiers are leaving on a bus during the evacuation? They are old men, one has a long white beard, and they have a distinctive uniform and hat. There is a straight row of buttons down the front of the uniform, and medals on the chest. I have seen these veterans on other British films, and I have looked all over the internet trying to find out which war they fought in, to no avail.
If you could identify them for me, I would be so grateful.