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Friday, June 10, 2011

This is Not a Test

Produced just before the Cuban Missile Crisis, This Is Not A Test (TINAT) was spot-on for the angst of its day. It is a mixed bag as a Nuclear Armageddon story. Some genre lists include TINAT as a sci-fi, though there is really no science in the fiction. It does, though, share with many 50s sci-fi, the topic of nuclear disaster. TINAT is an independent film with a strong film noir flavor. It was not the product of any major (or minor) studio, but rather, a personal work of "art" by Fredric Gadette, who was the director, a co-screenwriter and producer. The basic premise of a collection of strangers thrust together by a crisis was not new, but fitting.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Deputy Coulter gets a radio command to set up a road block on a remote desert highway around 4 in the morning. He doesn't know why, but obeys orders. He stops a group of strangers. Old Jake drives up with his granddaughter June (she's maybe 18 or so). Then arrives Cheryl the alcoholic and her boyfriend Joe, the hood. Sam and his wife Karen arrive next. She has a yappy dog named Timmy. Al drives up in his warehouse-supply semi rig. Al has Clint, a creey hitchhiker, with him. Later, young Peter arrives on his scooter. Coulter recognizes Clint as a wanted mad man killer. Clint escapes to the brush. Clint's radio reports that the crisis is an impending air raid attack. Their location is right between "the city", a military command center and a missile fuel refinery, so as remote as they are, their location is a likely "ground zero." Coulter decides that Al's truck will be their best shelter, so orders everyone to empty the trailer on such short notice. They unload, amid various human drama vignettes. Karen responds to Al's flirtations. Her husband, Sam, does little about it. Cheryl drinks too much. Joe talks jazzy jive talk. The truck had boxes of food and beverage. Coulter thinks they'll have to survive in the trailer for two weeks after the blast. He has Al drive to a better spot a quarter mile down the road. Karen rides with Al, not in back with her husband Sam. At the new spot, Coulter has them block the trailer's air vents with mud to keep out the radioactive air. June gets claustrophobic and refuses to get into the trailer. Her grandfather recalls some abandoned mines nearby, so he, June and Pete all run off. The rest get into the trailer. Sam, distraught, kills himself with the shotgun. Everyone else is locked into the trailer. Clint comes out of hiding, but all the car keys are gone. He vents his rage by killing some of Jake's chickens. It's hot and stuffy in the trailer. Cheryl strips off her blouse. Tensions flare. Coulter decides the dog Timmy will use up air, so kills it. Cheryl wigs out and opens the doors. Outside is a group of "looters". Coulter has a gun, but they overpower him, take some food and Karen. They drive off in Coulter's car. Jake tells June and Pete to hide deep in the mine. There's a spring for water inside it, and Pete will get food from a nearby cabin. Jake will just watch the end of the world from a mountain top. Meanwhile, the others have climbed back into the trailer and locked the door (from the inside?). Coulter comes to and pounds on the door to be let in. They refuse. The bright white flash fills the screen. The End.

Armageddon Escaped (and Not)
TINAT offers mostly a tale of futility and doom, but leaves in a sub-thread of hope and survival. The main focus is on the doomed group who stay with the trailer. There, despite Coulter's efforts and their will to survive, they are all wiped out in the blinding flash of the bomb. The understated hint of hope rests in June and Pete, a young Adam and Eve who are hinted at surviving the holocaust.

Cold War Spotlight
The late 50s (post-Sputnik) and early 60s were the most frantic period in Cold War tensions. In the 1960 Presidential campaign, America's "missile gap" was a drum beat loudly. Many Americans believed that the Soviets had huge numbers of long range nuclear missiles. The Cuban Missile Crisis later in '62 would bring this all to a head. The fear, panic and fatalism portrayed in TINAT was a palpable part of American culture in 1962. The threat of a sudden missile attack was never far from peoples' minds.

Bunkerism -- Airing on September 29, 1961 as a Twilight Zone episode entitled, "The Shelter." It is the fable of the ant and the grasshopper gone noir. In it, a man and his family take refuge in their home's bomb shelter when reports tell of unknown aircraft approaching. The neighbors all want into the shelter too but there isn't the room or the supplies. The neighbors panic and turn savage in an effort to get in. It turns out to be a false alarm. TINAT may have been inspired by this episode, but it may have been in development at about the same time (the cars in TINANT are 1961 vintage or older). They're not the same story, but both deal with how quickly civility breaks down in the face of impending doom.

Ground Zero Redux -- TINAT seems to build upon (but not copy) an earlier film. The movie Split Second ('53) featured a collection of strangers "trapped" at the site of an impending nuclear blast. In SS it was a Nevada test site. In TINAT, it's an actual attack. Both featured a hard-nosed "leader". Both featured faithless wives who end up driving away with criminals. Both had one of the group dying of a gunshot. Both featured three people escaping the group -- an old prospector type, a young woman and a young man -- to a nearby abandoned mine. Both featured the rest of the group dying in the blast.

Ignoble Leaders -- It seems, from watching 50s sci-fi and nuclear dramas, that people half-feared the bombs, but half-feared the collapse of civilization. People easily imagined despotic local leaders abusing their new power. Coulter starts out as the stalwart but out-of-his-league fragment of authority. The people obey him half-heartedly, but they do obey. As time goes on, Coulter gets more gruff and authoritarian. His ruthless killing of the little dog exemplifies the harsh realities of martial law. The others stage an empty coup by locking him out of the trailer.

Bottom line? TINAT is not a great movie, but it is not bad either. It isn't high quality, but it isn't flagrantly cheap either. Filming at night is more costly than day-for-night, for example. Yes, some of the acting is spotty and the writing is occasionally preachy. Yet, overall, the plot movies along. There is a film noir quality to it. It is a good example of the fear lingering in the background of Cold War era folks.

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