Directed by Alfred E. Green
Gerald Mohr as Vince Potter
Peggie Castle as Carla Sanford
Dan O’Herlihy as Mr. Ohman
Robert Brice as George Sylvester
In the summer of 1945, America had completed the first successful detonation of a nuclear device at the White Sands Missile Range. Yippee! We have the bomb! By the summer of 1949, the USSR had also wrapped up their first successful test of an atomic bomb. Oh, crap. Four lousy years on top and it’s “welcome to the Cold War, Comrade!” If you want a small taste of what the times were like, feast your eyes on the video snippets in the sidebar of this blog, which, to say the least, were not done for laughs (peculiarly relevant to the proceedings is “What is Communism?).
By the time this film was made, 1952, America was fully entrenched in the kind of grinding, ever-tightening, bowel-squishing paranoia that only baffling, terrible science and apposing political ideologies can produce. Our basic fear came, naturally enough, from our largest and scariest enemy having a weapon that could turn our cities and populace entirely into cinders, bone and dust. Sure, the Soviets turned out to be less threatening than we feared (didn’t our mothers always tell us that our fears were mostly in our imaginations?), but no one suspected a paper tiger then. They seemed pretty goddamned frightening to those who had lived through WWII. I mean, these brutes had stopped the iron and steel Nazi machine cold at Stalingrad with little more than flesh and bone, dressed in nothing but winter rags and fed on a diet of dead rats. When storming Berlin, Soviet soldiers had mistaken indoor toilets for potato washers. German soldiers and citizens fell over themselves near the end, surrendering to American or allied forces to avoid, at all costs, the tender care of the Red Army. Now these hearty bone-crunchers had the atomic bomb? Not good. Not good at all.
Our secondary fear, and not a very far second, was the weapon itself. There was something unnatural about it. Man had rendered a bomb - a “device” - that could “split the atom” (whatever the hell that meant) and produce a resulting explosion that caused the very men who created the thing to shit themselves in terror. The sheer destructiveness of it, the majestic, towering mushroom cloud it made (somehow sickly beautiful), the Geiger counter clicking in its wake; all just seemed terribly wrong. All other bombs and weaponry that mankind had devised up to this point were somehow on the scale-of-man; horribly devastating in some cases to be sure, but always within the realm of steel, wood, and gunpowder; hewn with muscle and forge. This new science-born thing, though, suggested man had over-reached God’s design, thrust a child’s clumsy fingers into the fiery climate of Armageddon.
There was, in short, a great deal to be paranoid about; and this film grabs us in its meaty, red paw and clubs us with every fear available. Is it “anti-communist propaganda”? Oh, hell yes, and then some. Manipulative and obvious? Yessiree Bob! All of which make it some prime Radiation Cinema.
Our story opens at Tim’s cocktail bar, in New York City, where everyone is bellied up, drinking and chatting happily. All seems right with the world, yet by the end of the scene (actually, well before the end of the scene) it is thumpingly clear that America, represented by the good citizens at Tim’s bar, has become a nation of complacent, money-grubbing barflies.
The television over the bar is turned to the news, which is droning on about the sport scores, the weather, and denials from Washington regarding the rumor that enemy planes have been spotted over Alaska (yep, this film gets right to it). These Washington sources, despite their assurances, refuse to discount the possibility of all out war. This last bit causes little reaction from our selection of typical Americans save a fellow in a cowboy hat remarking with mild irritation, “Turn that thing off. I get enough war talk at home” (actor Eric Blythe affects a John Wayne drawl just to be extra-American). Others at the bar agree and Tim (played by granite-headed character actor, Tom Kennedy) snaps the set off.
A news reporter who works at television station Just down the block, Vince Potter (Gerald Mohr), comes into the bar, talking a survey for a news piece. How do the barflies present feel about the universal draft? By this rather impatient and clunky plot device, we meet the players. They are, in order of appearance, the previously mentioned Ed Mulfury (Blythe) a “cattle raiser” from Arizona; George Sylvester (Robert Brice), a “tractor manufacturer” from San Francisco; Carla Sanford, (Peggie Castle) high priced material girl –perhaps call girl -- accommodating the visiting Mr. Sylvester while he is in town; Arthur V. Harraway, (Wade Crosby) congressman from Illinois; and last but far from least, Mr. Ohman, who is vaguely foreign (maybe Austrian) and drinks cognac from a large snifter (compare this choice of beverage to Potter's "How about a beer, Tim" - and it's Miller High Life; the "Champagne of Bottled Beer" for good measure). Add to this suspicious behavior, Mr. Ohman actually swirls the cognac in his large snifter and sits at the bar alone, reading a book. Mr. Ohman seems perfectly happy to smirk knowingly at the talk around him. Yes, we will need to keep our eye on “Mr. Ohman” very closely. So, we have a typical crowd at a typical, recognizable, American bar; that is, if the typical bar you frequent has cattle ranchers, industrialists, congressmen, newsmen, rich party girls, and suave, foreign intellectuals as its regular clientele.
From this representative collection of drinkers we learn what a sorry collection of selfish whiners America has become. All present feel their government is asking far too much of them. Taxes are too high and government involvement in business is too high, as well. I mean, patriotism is fine and all, but where’s the payoff? What’s in it for me? George, our industrialist, is even seen if a brief flashback kicking an Army Major out of his office for requesting the production of a few more tank parts over much more profitable tractors. “I told him off!” says George. Carla reminisces that she worked for a bit in a factory in the war until it began to chap her hands, whereupon she quit. I mean, after all, a girl can only sacrifice so much.
The oily Mr. Ohman, who has identified himself as a “forecaster” (ah, a weather forecaster, assumes Potter) sums up this silly bitching nicely:
“The manufacture wants more war orders and lower taxes” he says, laying on that goddamned self-satisfied smirk. “Labor wants more consumable products and a 30 hour week. The college boy wants a stronger army and a deferment for himself. The businessman wants a bigger Air Force and a new Cadillac. The housewife wants security and an electric dishwasher. Everybody wants a strong America, and we all want the same man to pay for it. George (the other guy). Let George do it.” Ohman’s grin is all dark venom. At this point in the film it is difficult to know what to make of Mr. Ohman. He just might be a vampire; or perhaps a writer.
Everyone shares a chuckle. Sure! Let George do it! Yuk, yuk.
Mr. Ohman snaps them back to attention, his dark eyes going positively inky: “A good joke, but wars are not won with jokes.” Ohman lifts his snifter, swirls the cognac, and intones. “To win a war, a nation must concentrate.”
All at the bar seem frozen in the moment, mesmerized by the smooth voice of Mr. Ohman, wondering what he might say next. Ohman stares straight into the camera through his glass. He sets his glass down and walks to the restroom, but all continue to stare at the glass on the bar; all except Tim the bartender, who has been too busy doing what all bartenders do endlessly in films: cleaning shot glasses with a white towel (plus, it is clear to one and all, Tim is stupid as a peanut butter sandwich).
“Hey, what’s he yakking about?” says Tim, breaking the mood. He waves his bar rag at the monitor, where the newsman can be seen talking excitedly without sound. “something big’s going on.” A synapse slowly lights a connection in Tim’s dense grey cells, and he remembers he turned the volume off. He snaps it on, saying “Speak up, jerk!” (I would like to admit at this point that I found Tim unaccountably irritating, far beyond anything reason would allow).
What the “jerk” has to say is that previous rumors about planes in Alaska have been confirmed. It’s a Blue Alert! Hundreds of unidentified aircraft have been spotted over Alaska, making their way south toward the mainland of America! The mood in the bar goes from complacent-good-times to grim-set-jaws in a heartbeat. I better get back to the station, says Potter, and beats a hasty exit after letting his voice drop a lecherous octave or two as he says goodbye to Carla (throughout the scene, our hotshot reporter has traded sexual jousts and flirtations with Carla, practically giving her a grope right in front of her date, George).
Well, it’s the Ruskies, all right, and they’re flying and parachuting in by the thousands, killing workers and radio operators and immediately setting up shop (they have a network of spies already set up throughout the very weave of the fabric of American life!). While the film makers take great pains never to establish Russia as the invading force, they take equal pains to ensure that we understand that’s exactly who it is. The invading force refer to themselves as “the people’s army” and invading individuals take every opportunity to spout Marxist doctrine. In the stock areal footage from WWII, which is used to do a great deal of work in the film (a very great deal of work), Russian MiG fighters are shown more than once; and Russia is just miles off the Alaskan coast (as ex-vice presidential hopeful and Alaskan governor, Sarah Palin, has explained in numerous, albeit extremely brief, geography lessons).
The enemy starts dropping A-bombs on us like kids egging a house; first served are the military bases and air fields – we see the interior of an enemy plane and the bombardier thumbing the bombs-away button so many times he looks like a kid hot-rodding a PlayStation controller. We see stock footage of the Trinity test several times, superimposed over footage of airfields (quite well done). We cut back to the bar and Potter has made his way back to the station and gives us the news from the hanging television. Along with the airbases, unofficial accounts report targets being hit all up and down the pacific coast with bombs “nearly as strong as the American bomb dropped on Nagasaki.”
Potter interrupts his news summary for an emergency broadcast from the White House, and “the President” comes on to give an urgent address. American shores have been invaded and American bases and cities have been bombed with atomic weapons. We have responded in kind, and atomic war has been declared. For reasons unknown, the President has decided to speak to the American people in this time of crisis in one-quarter profile, so that all the television audience can see is the side of the back of his head as he speaks, presumably facing an empty office (in all Presidential addresses throughout the movie, we see the President from the same oblique angle). Instead of choosing an actor that might resemble then sitting President, Dwight Eisenhower, the film makers have chosen an actor that makes one think of Winston Churchill in both appearance and voice. He delivers a distinctly Churchillian address, which insures Americans: “At this very minute, hundreds of our fastest bombers are speeding toward the enemy’s homeland. We shall bomb their bases and their armies; their factories and their railroads; their harbors and their oilfields. Our own atom bomb, more powerful than any the world has ever known, will reek a terrible vengeance upon that nation whose long threat to the peace of the world today became a reality.”
During the news summaries and presidential address, the bar understandably thins out considerably. Congressman Harraway and Ohman have made themselves scarce; the congressman skedaddling back to Washington and “Mr.” Ohman slinking off God knows where, probably to some opium den or library, the self righteous, foreign bastard. Despite the outbreak of invasion and nuclear war, and the sudden slim pickings at this bar, Tim keeps cleaning classes in preparation, I suppose, for the post holocaust crush.
Vince returns to the bar and sidles up quickly next to Carla (George, her abstentious date, and Ed the lonesome cattle wrangler have huddled up together in stunned camaraderie, leaving the path to Carla wide open for a smoothie like our eager reporter). Vince pours his beer into a glass and tells all present that things are far worse than his last report. He tells of more atom bombs dropping on more cities, tens of thousands of Americans dead, etc. etc. Can you believe it, says George, right here in America. “Look at that,” says Vince, and the television shows hundreds of parachutes opening, dropping enemy soldiers into the state of Washington. The invasion has begun in force, and Americans are shooting at paratroopers from behind sandbags. “There goes one!” exclaims the broadcaster, as one of our boys plugs an enemy trying to struggle out of his parachute. During this extremely cinematic live broadcast, we see Vince go for the handhold with Carla, like a teenager making his move during a horror film, and Carla covers his hand with hers. Bang. George out. Vince in.
Everyone decides to scatter to the four winds: George and Ed head for home, California and Arizona respectively; Vince and Carla for a heated love affair; and Tim, more than likely staying right where he is, spending what time he has left in his usual 4-second-delay brain fugue, only a little confused as he mixes daiquiris. The scene ends with a paper boy walking through the bar, hawking an extra: America Invaded! America Invaded! Read All About it. (Time Machine Printing Press Invented! Able to Print Headlines within seconds of News Event! Read all about it!)
A good piece of the remainder of the film follows our characters to their terrifying fates: Ed the cattleman and his family are swept away by floods caused by the destruction of Boulder Dam, smashed to rubble by an atom bomb. Industrialist George is shot to death in his plant when he refuses another suggestion to make tanks, this time for the People’s Army! (George really has to eat it in his final moments as he gets slapped around by a former employee, a window washer, who in reality was an enemy spy. He at least cracks the guy in the jaw before taking one in the back). Congressman Harraway gets shot dead, along with other congressman, all climbing over each with a definite lack of dignity as they try for the exits of an invaded Senate Building in Washington. As for Carla and Vince, they head on back to Carla’s apartment, have a nice diner, and then make love. Hey, It’s like Vince says as he makes his grand move. “War or no war, people have to eat, drink, and make love.” You have to hand it to Vince: despite considerable distraction, he never took his eye off the ball. After their moment of passion, however, things don’t end up so rosy for our lovebirds, either.
New York gets bombed (A-bombed, that is) and the city is knocked flat (Tim is found by searchers in the rubble, mixer still in his grip). Both Vince and Carla survive, but soon the secret radio station where Vince has been making broadcasts is overrun and Vince, at the point of execution, convinces two brutish members of the People’s army to escort him back to Carla’s apartment. How he manages to fool the two comrades is not explained, but far more importantly, why he leads these two dirty sub-humans back to his girlfriend’s apartment is a far bigger and sadder mystery. To help her escape, as he tells her? Escape, that is, from a situation he has brought to her door? Well, whatever his intentions, he fails miserably and gets shot dead by one of the enemy soldiers in quick fashion. The other hulk says to her gently, “He’s dead. You are my woman now.” No thank you, says Carla, by kicking the soldier in the nuts and jumping out her high rise window. She falls screeching to her death, her body spinning, spinning . . .
Spinning right into Mr. Ohman’s snifter.
Well, ahem, it seems it was all, well, not a dream, exactly. More like a trance. You see, Mr. Ohman is a sort of fortune teller, or a hypnotist, and he has put all at the bar (save lunkheaded Tim) into a trance where they have experienced a mass nightmare. It is a kind of omen, you see- (Mr. Ohman . . . Omen).
“Mass hypnotism.” Says Vince, who has already rushed to take his post- nightmare position beside the very much alive Carla. “That’s what it was.”
Mr. Ohman/omen tells them in summation that all they have dreamed will come true, unless they do something to change it. “If you wish to change what you will become, first change what you are,” says the pompous shit, very much begging an old-school ass whipping by his tortured bar buddies. He bids them a good day and leaves.
And these born again patriots have learned their lesson and how! Instead of giving Mr. fancy pants the beating of his life, as would be any American’s impulse, they race off to their respective factories to make more tanks, or their ranches to raise cheaper beef, or to the senate floor to make better speeches; or in the case of Vince and Carla, to her apartment and make . . . well, everyone gets a brand new shiny dose of “America”, and all is put straight with the world.
What left to say? Over time, this movie has become very easy to laugh at - how stupid we were then; how quaint and wrong-headed were our fears. How much more sophisticated and worldly we are now. Well, sure. I always tend to feel itchy, though, when laughing at the naivety of a passed time, chuckling from the vantage point of our present. Our present will become a laughable past very quickly, too. Will our grandchildren roll their eyes when we try to explain how frightening Islam was in our day? Hopefully, yes. With any luck, they’ll snort into their shirt cuffs. In watching this film, did anyone else’s smile freeze on their face when that tall, thin building in New York caught fire near the end and tumbled to the ground? Will future generations, who did not experience 911, have the slightest window into our frozen smiles? No. They won’t.
A piece of subtle film making, this isn’t. With regard to acting, all concerned perform as though they were making an army training film. It is propaganda, pure and simple. And while it is awfully fun to laugh through the unfounded fears of the past, think also of the feelings it produced when all those fears where fresh and real as the Taliban.
Pass that bag of good old, American-as-apple-pie, microwave popcorn! - Radiation Cinema