SEAT AT THE BACK - SCRIBBLES! ~ Films on the Seat at the Back playlist right now: KIDS IN LOVE; JUNE; CURVE; WILD, BARELY LETHAL; GODDESS OF LOVE; THE VATICAN TAPES .. What a night in!

Saturday, 20 July 2013

'SEVEN DAYS TO NOON' (1950) ~ Sunday lunchtimes will never be the same again, in this perfect British pulse-rattler that: "never once feels like it could never happen today. . ."

*This review may contain spoilers in the carpetbag ~ watch before detonating*

7. . .

SEVEN DAYS TO NOON is possibly one of the very best British thrillers ever made.

Sure, some may say it's a little outdated now, being made well over half a century ago. It's in black and white, the dialogue may feel a little stilted thanks to the passing of times and trends and the male/female interplay may seem slightly out of touch and one-sided. But this is a simply fantastic movie - especially in its plot detail, full of as much relevance to a modern world as it was back then.

The cast is exceptional too and the characterisation sublime. Most important of all, this is a nerve-slicing, pulse-whacking delight of a thriller that truly kicks tension up the backside and over the garden gate. Pure British pleasure. A Boulting Brothers/ London Films/ British Lion surprise. If you haven't seen this yet - seek it out, track it down, hide it in a landlady's spare room and lock all the doors. Pour yourself a cup of tea and open a packet of digestive biscuits. Palms sweating. Briefcase ticking. This is SEVEN DAYS TO NOON.

6. . .

A British scientist working at a top secret nuclear facility fears the atomic bomb will be the end of the world as we know it. It's not long before he goes AWOL, scribbling increasingly crazed notes and leaving them lying around - notes full of end of the world rants and ravings, and numerous apocalyptic biblical quotes to add to the misery and his eternal despair.

Well, things wouldn't be so bad if that was all we had to worry about; a loopy scientist on the loose. But this scientist has taken an atomic bomb with him, hidden in a briefcase. And he's heading towards London. In seven days time he plans to detonate the device to show the world how powerful a destructive weapon nuclear power could be, if in the wrong hands. Ironically, that power, that reason and method to kill, is in the scientist's hands, not that of the military. Seven days until detonation. Noon doomsday. . . "And today is Monday" (a wonderful line in the film!). Sunday lunchtimes will never be the same again.

5. . .
Character actor Barry Jones gives the performance of a lifetime here as Professor John Willingdon. With a brow patchworked with dabs of sweat and a terrified, but determined gleam in his eyes, this is a man who has lost all sense of rational thought and yet - seems almost convincing in his assertion that his way is the right way. There's no doubt, should the bomb be detonated, that nuclear weapons will be seen as the greatest most devastating threat the world has ever known - and it's now right on its very own doorstep. That death and destruction is the best way possible of bringing home the devestating effects of an atomic bomb to a country, to a world, that is playing with the manufacture of such destructive devices is the ultimate irony. And yet - clearly his way can't be right. Direct action not an option to any argument based in the notion of peace. But his argument, to the benefit of the film, never seems as foolhardy or as random - certainly not as stupid, as you may expect.


Never once, really, is the errant Professor portrayed as the archetypal villain of this movie as such - at least not in the traditional sense. As he is closely followed across the country by his loyal colleague - the much younger and dashing (as movie-making in the 1950s demanded) Stephen Lane (Hugh Cross in a British stiff upper lip role) and daughter Ann (Sheila Manahan) never once do they, or any of his friends or family, see him as 'the enemy'. They only worry for him; want to save him before London has to be saved instead - stop the man from making the worst decision of his life (depending on point of view!). It's a hope that dwindles swiftly - Professor John Willingdon, it soon becomes obvious, isn't bluffing.

4. . .
Also on the trail of the bomb-wielding briefcase and the man holding the handles is Superintendent Folland, played by Professor Quatermass (from the BBC's classic 1958-9 series 'Quatermass and the Pit') himself - the wonderfully furrow-browed but still engagingly calm and contemplative Andre Morell. It's a dogged, resigned determination of Folland's to catch the lunatic with the bomb at all costs and there's little sympathy on his part towards the crazed man of science running around with an atomic bomb in his briefcase. Folland has a job to do, and he works until the last second to make sure London is safe. But he still treads a softly softly path - there's no ranting about an escaped lunatic or terrorist getting what he deserves, it's just a job that needs to be done. Utterly grave and serious - sure, but being British, there's no need to panic chaps. He just needs to 'get his man'. In seven days. And did I mention it's already Monday?


There are some wonderful character performances in the movie from familiar faces. Especially good is Joan Hickson (TV's best ever Miss Marple herself) as a suspicious cat-loving landlady, Mrs Peckett, who suspects her tennant is a killer. Little does she know that her 'killer' is up to something that could result in something far worse - the mass slaughter of the innocent in a large area of London. In a wonderful touch, a local Bobby makes a connection between the supposed killer in residence and the missing man with a bomb, beautifully brushed aside by the Sergeant at the police station, with a sarcastic "yes, ok - good work" and little more praise than that.

Wyndham Goldie puts in a show-stopping (though not bomb-dropping - quite the opposite!) turn too as a country vicar who seems to have - if not encouraged the Professor is his peaceful-aggresssive stance, certainly added some flame to the current fire. But the film belongs to Olive Sloane as ageing actress and possible lady of the night; an unspoken and uncertain potential maneater with a heart of gold and a perfect pot of tea (a kind of early blueprint for the real life Cynthia Payne)  - Goldie Phillips, who takes pity on the Professor and takes him back to her flat to stay the night. In a perfectly orchestrated battle of the bedroom or the couch, she toys with the edgy man in barely concealed dismay when all he seems to want, really - is a cup of tea and shelter. There is no explicit offer of sex needed - this is how movie desire and seduction should be more often perhaps: fumbling and uncertain, playing with words, wistful glances, calling of bluffs - in the end the Professor gets his sofa and Goldie gets her bed, to herself.


The relationship between the Professor and Goldie veers close to being a romantic one. There's a real connection here, a promise of 'what if' that we know (with the Professor's intentions increasingly desperate and awful) can never be realised. When London is evacuated and no citizens left behind, the Professor turns to threatening Goldie - making sure she is one of just two people, along of course with himself, left behind in the playground of the paranoia and facing certain death. But the threats are almost kind-hearted and certainly full of regret. The Professor gently closes the door. Locks it. Calm, clear conviction. Goldie will be killed, but the suffering of one, fades to no importance, before the saving (he believes) of a whole world.

3. . .

The clock ticks towards the climatic detonation. Noon arrives. Everyone has been evacuated (touching, heartbreaking scenes of families being split apart and pets left behind in shared cages) and the streets are now empty, isolated and eerie silence has fallen.

The final day, as noon approaches - has a feeling almost of a modern day apocalyptic movie. Yet to many, watching back in the day, memories of wartime evacuation and the destruction of communities in devastating bombing raids, ensured this was less a fiction, more a chilling reminder of recent past.


2. . .
The opening credits of the movie thank 'THE CITIZENS OF LONDON' and you can see why; familiar London landmarks and once busy roads are shot in documentary-style silence. This all feels uncomfortably real. Few films have ever earned such a perfect recreation of silence and emptiness. And the evacuation sequences previously convince absolutely - crowd scenes bristling with extras in various states of panic and disarray. The one lady left in London, trapped in her flat, really feels like she is up there in quiet terror behind those closed doors, as the army search all the houses, narrowly missing her flat after being told by another resident that the lady upstairs has left already, there is a collective groan among all who watch.

As noon arrives, one man waits in a church to detonate the bomb he fears will bring about the destruction of the world (but for today will just devastate London alone) as friends, police, army and family race to track him down. The countdown goes right to the edge. The end of London as we know it really is nigh. If you aren't on the edge of your seat by this point - you're as good as already dead.


Directed deliciously with wit and closeted precision by John and Roy Boulting who alternated directing and producing duties on a series of great films of the era including TWISTED NERVE (1968) and BRIGHTON ROCK (1947), this film is blessed too with a brooding, clever and tense script in which the real enemy has never been less perfectly indistinct from Roy Boulting based on a story by James Bernard (best known as a composer on Hammer films at the time - this was his only screenwriting credit) and Paul Dehn (who provided the script for Goldfinger and worked on the stories for every original Planet of the Apes sequel).

1. . .

SEVEN DAYS TO NOON perfectly capsulises London at the dawn of a new uncertain decade framed by the onset and progress of atomic power and increasing paranoia - a society still reeling from the thought of returning to the devastation and heartless but necessary evacuations of the Second World War; a time that split apart families to their very core and from which many never recovered from the psychological scars.

No palm remains unclenched throughout an astoundingly bleak, eerie, expansive and unsettling 94 minutes. Modern day Hollywood thrillers may look and weep at how tension is so effortlessly, subtly, cranked up all the way here to an atomic max.

Seven days to noon. . .

You may think that sounds like plenty of time to find the one man left walking in London. But it soon becomes clear that even an evacuated city has many places in which to hide - and those seven days quickly seem like no time at all. The most frightening thing about this movie, perhaps - is that although the script was written over sixty years ago, it never once feels like it could never happen today.


Words: Mark Gordon Palmer

. . .noon.

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