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Monday, April 11, 2011

Seven Days to Noon

America (and the West) had a few years of peaceful basking in the victory of WWII. That came to and end in the August of 1949 when the Soviet Union detonated their first A-Bomb. Now, the specter of Hiroshima could come to Western cities. So, it was no coincidence that 1950 was the start of Atomic Angst movies and the start of sci-fi's Golden Era, in which Cold War worries found so many metaphors on screen.

Seven Days to Noon (7DN) was a London Films production played in the UK in October of 1950, and in the US in December. The premise of there being a British atomic bomb for a rogue scientist to steal, was a bit of futurist setting. The British didn't join the "Nuclear Club" until 1952. Yet, London becoming a wasteland like Nagasaki, was a frighteningly real possibility. This point wasn't lost on American audiences either.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A letter arrives at the Prime Minister's office at 10 Downing Street. Unless the government stops all it's nuclear development, the author would detonate an a-bomb "at the seat of government." He gives them seven days to comply. Scotland Yard puts Superintendent Folland on the job. Calling around to various nuclear labs eventually reveals that a professor Willingdon has gone missing. Also missing is one of their UR12 bombs, which (handily enough) is small enough to fit in a suitcase. Folland and Lane (Willingdon's assistant) and Ann Willingdon (daughter) search for clues among his papers. Meanwhile, Willingdon meditates in a London church still damaged from The Blitz. Newspapers carry his photo as a wanted man, so he has a barber shave it off. He rents a room from an old woman. He acts strangely, so she is suspicious. Next day, he throws away his overcoat because the papers mention it. He buys another in a pawn shop. There, he meets Goldie, an aging burlesque performer. The police and army begin searching for Willingdon. He eludes them, but it gets harder to do. He chances to meet Goldie again. She invites him to sleep at her flat. He does. (All is gentlemanly and proper.) He leaves in the morning before she's up. Since he refused to negotiate with the government, officials finally tell the whole story. Goldie now knows who he was, so she tells the police. Evacuation plans are set into motion, to clear everyone out of the center of London. Goldie goes to her flat to pack and visit friends in Aldershot before the evacuation begins. Willingdon is hiding in her flat. He holds her hostage and hunkers down. The evacuation begins the next morning. A montage of many scenes tell how everything is orderly and calm. Even street people are rounded up. When the city center is cleared, brigades of troops start searching house by house. Eventually, they get to Goldie's building. Willingdon escapes out a window, but the ring of troops is getting tighter and tighter. Finally, on Sunday morning, they find him at the altar of the bombed out church. Lane and Ann try to reason with him, but he is resolute. His work for the betterment of mankind is being used for destruction. It must stop. He unintentionally gives away the location of the bomb. Folland restrains Willingdon. Lane moves to disarm the bomb. Willingdon panics and runs from the building. A jittery soldier shoots him when he emerges. Lane succeeds in disarming the bomb with just seconds to spare. Big Ben strikes noon. London is saved. The End.

Apocalypse Avoided
7DN coming to the brink of atomic destruction, but is saved in the final seconds. This is due to the tireless efforts of the government and army to find the threat. In this case, it was a rogue scientist who was the threat, not the communists. The savior was the government who resolutely protected the people and tracked down the bomber.

Cold War Spotlight
Even though the population and authorities are handling everything with a (self-promotional) stiff upper lip, note the fear depicted by the characters. The prospect of nuclear destruction was dawning in the cultural consciousness.

Homegrown Terrorism -- Even though produced in 1950, 7DN's scenario of a threat-from-within is remarkably salient for today. In our post-Cold-War world, waves of Russian planes or missiles are a thing of the past. A disgruntled loner, a Timothy McVeigh sort, is a more realistic threat.

Moral Misgivings -- The Professor Willingdon character serves as a sort of everyman conscience. Now that the A-bomb was a reality (and in the hands of "others"), there was a lot of remorse, but the genie was out of the bottle. As much as people wanted to, there was no going back. This played out in metaphor, with the death of Willigndon in the end.

Iconic Empty City -- 7DN is one of the earliest Atomic Angst films (and sci-fi) to feature many shots of an empty city. Scenes such as these will be repeated many times in later movies. The scenes of evacuations will be repeated many times too -- though usually with more stress and chaos, as in Godzilla, for instance.

Hawk Voices -- While sheltering in the pub (to avoid police patrols), Willingdon is disturbed by loudmouth with a hawkish attitude. Before the government revealed that the threat was Willigndon and his one bomb, the public took all the hush-hush cabinet meetings and evacuation plans as evidence that the Russians were planning to bomb England. Mr. Hawk says, "It's time they do somethin' about it. Load up fifty A-bombs in bombers and strike first. I know we got 'em. Been churnin 'em out like pineapples. Load the ruddy planes and blast their big cities to 'ell." Mr. Hawk and Willigndon are the classic opposite poles in the nuclear debate.

Bottom line? 7DN is a well-done drama film on its own. It is significant for being the first to show a Western city having to face a possible nuclear destruction.

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