Seven Days to Noon
The dangers inherent in the atomic age have not diminished over time (ask anyone attempting to clean up Fukushima*). We’ve just become more passive about their imminence, particularly when our demise is far less likely to be the detonation of warheads released by opposing power blocs than unquenchable streams radioactive waste leaching into our oceans. Best not to think about it then, eh? Back when the Seven Days to Noon was made, a mere half-decade had passed since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But it was more than enough time to have formulated the narrative’s debate over whether all this destructive capability is really such a good idea.
Barry Jones’ disillusioned scientist, Professor Willingdon, goes AWOL from his Wallingford research base with an atomic bomb in his brief case (a UR-12, we are told, and clearly quite a dinky new model). He has sent a letter to the Prime Minister, informing him the device will be triggered in London a week hence unless the government publicly announces the abandonment of the manufacture of all such weapons.
The best Bernard Quatermass, André Morell, leads the manhunt as one of Scotland Yard’s finest. But it’s Jones’ story that is most involving; the Boultons keep him off screen for the first fifteen minutes, leading us to speculate what sort of person could plan something so monstrous. And then we meet him and he’s a complete surprise; distracted and tortured, but perfectly affable. Jones is outstanding in the role; he bears a passing resemblance to a follically challenged Kenneth Connor, but the deep disturbance in his mind is etched on his face and in his eyes.
Terrorist plots to lay waste major cities are ten-a-penny today but, despite the familiarity, this is a highly distinctive Boulting Brothers picture (best known for their comedies, this was their directorial follow up to Brighton Rock). In part this is down to the post-war milieu, with ration books still in use (as effective as an ID card in preventing a wanted figure from keeping a low profile) and ever present bombed-out surroundings. But it’s also because of the sympathy reserved for Jones; his methods may be unthinkable, but his stricken conscience is entirely relatable (Thomas Harris attempted something of this ilk with Black Sunday, but his lead floundered as a nutter with a just a dash of cod-psychology underpinning him).
Indeed, you can’t imagine something like this being produced in the US at that time. Although, the picture did win the Oscar for Best Story; it went to Paul Dehn, the scribe responsible for the Planet of the Apes sequels, and regular Hammer composer James Bernard. It was also BAFTA nominated for Best Picture, losing to Dixon of Dock Green precursor The Blue Lamp. It’s perhaps surprising that the picture goes as far as it does, since there was government assistance in its production (the extensive London filming, the military presence). Maybe the foreknowledge of a non-controversial ending convinced the powers-that-be it was a worthwhile project (“Don’t you worry, the atom bomb is perfectly safe in Blighty”). After all, it promoted the idea of government openness to telling it like it is to the proles and suggested that a major evacuation could run like clockwork. There’s really nothing to worry about, you see.
They should have realised that just letting the mind loose on such matters is fuel to the debate; it doesn’t really matter if the bomb goes off or not. Fear is triggered, and not irrational fear. The movie concerns itself with the essentially immorality of the creation, rather than dwelling on its physical effects. No one describes the horrors of what happened in Japan, but it’s not as if the public had no idea, even then. And even Kubrick, over a decade later, didn’t spend his time telling us just how we were all going to die; the joke was that it would happen for absurd reasons. I have to admit my preference would have been to depict something as uncomforting as The Day the Earth Caught Fire a decade later, but in its own subdued way Seven Days to Noon retains its own sense of apocalyptic dread. The power comes from the unreality of the threat to such a familiar environment.
It may now seem that the Willingdon’s burden manifests as a slightly deranged religious fervour. Yet the idea of being confronted by overwhelming contradictions between one’s core beliefs and one’s work doesn’t need to be such an enormous leap. Not all scientists then were required to be Dawkins-esque atheistic zealots. His crisis is expressed in Christian terms; he scrawls repeated phrases from the Bible and Milton on pages found in his study, and finishes up kneeling in a church. His devotion to science derived from a desire to serve God and his fellow men, but he realised he was pursuing a goal of destruction. The Boultings make no attempt to suggest that Willingdon’s scruples are wrong, or that the church would take a different stance to him (well, leaving aside the nuking of half a city, obviously).
Fundamentally, his yardstick is moral rather than religious; ethically he discovers he has backed into a blind alley. Under such circumstances it is not such a great surprise that he should turn to the church as compass (since science has offered no such sustenance). As he tells a pub carouser who wishes Britain would load all its bombs into planes and blast the cities of its enemies to hell, he’s missing the point; such an action would mean the total destruction of mankind. The reality of Armageddon looms large in his mind, and we cannot blame him. The Boultings are clearly telegraphing this point in the scene where the professor is standing in the Natural History Museum, a dinosaur skeleton displayed in the foreground; soon we will all be just as extinct.
It’s only Willingdon’s drastic action that identifies him as out of his mind. Not that such extreme methods haven’t been adopted by those in positions of power to justify terrible actions; his behaviour is predicated on a kind of warped utilitarian thinking. We also see him adopt strategies that will become common parlance; like modern terrorists, Willingdon refuses to negotiate. And, like modern leaders confronted by terrorists, the PM refuses to capitulate. Ronald Adam’s premier doesn’t make much impression, although he delivers a speech in which he explains that Britain’s nuclear policy is in place because making weakness provides irresistible temptation to the tyrant, the dictator. Post-WWII, it’s a cunningly manipulative argument, and accordingly the notional imminent threat remains an ever-popular propaganda tool of the leader demanding everything from increased defence spending to infringement of civil liberties.
There’s a tinge of a The Man in the White Suit vibe to the broader conversation; it’s the boffins and politicians who make great claims for progress, but what of the (literal) fall out for the common man? Alec Guinness’ ever-clean suit raised some pertinent concerns about the reflex on the manufacturing industry (i.e. a capitalist society could not countenance such a development). Here, Goldie (Olive Sloane) passes judgement on Willingdon with a rebuke that could have come straight from the Ealing comedy; “You and your sort, inventing things” (of course, all she wants is a good man; when Willingdon stays the night at her flat, she suggestively tells him of the couch, “It’s quite comfortable – if that’s what you want”).
The professor is dismissive of such a Luddite mentality, but in his (relative) rural paradise he doesn’t encounter the daily reminders of what “progress” brings (the post-blitz London). With both Willingdon and Guinness’ Sidney Stratton there is a head-in-the-clouds aspect to scientific progress-for-the-sake-of-progress that requires a rude awakening. It’s hard to gauge how progressive the Boultings thought process is here. It may just be a case of picking their issues. The following year they produced High Treason, in which a plot to attack Britain by some damn Commies needed foiling. J Edgar was surely proud in that instance.
If the Willingdon invites sympathy up to a point, he resists our affection. The Boultings reserve this for their salty Londoners. It’s this aspect that betrays the identity of the duo that would go on to make Private’s Progress, I’m All Right Jack, Brothers in Law and Heavens Above! Joan Hickson’s cat-laden, chain-smoking landlady, the first port of call for Willingdon, has her suspicion piqued not by his true identity but a newspaper report warning, “Landlady Killer at Large”. Could this man, pacing his room at all hours, be intending to murder her? The Boultings jet black sense of humour also serves as a reminder that aberrant behaviour is no modern phenomenon (the rose-tinted spectacles brigade would tell us so, but this was the period when Christie was still up to his grizzly crimes).
A lad in a pub is revealed to be playing a pinball machine called “Atomic Racer”. A doom mongering placard wearer who will not leave his signage behind is repeatedly turned away from evacuation points; eventually we see his abandoned board (“The wages of sin is death”). When Willingdon’s colleague Stephen (Hugh Cross) races to a payphone, to warn the police of the sighting of the professor, the barged occupant exclaims, “What’s, the world coming to an end or something?”
The soldiers we encounter are generally a derelict bunch, missing no opportunity for laziness, thievery (stealing a pair of knickers from a house being searched) or boozing. Indeed, the amount of work required of them causes one pair to opine that it would have been better to join the navy. And it’s one particularly trigger-happy squaddie (a metaphor for the military-industrial complex as a whole?), played by Victor Maddern, who nervously brings the proceedings to a decisive close.
Crucially, it’s the heart-on-her-sleeve comedy involving Olive, the fading could-have-been starlet, which ring out the picture. Her refrain of “What about my car to Aldershot?” rings throughout the third act as she attempts to flee the doomed capital, and she gets the final moments (with her King Charles spaniel Trixie). It’s a slightly clumsy lurch back into levity, but it somehow seems consistent with the indomitable British spirit the Boultings are gently taking the rise out of.
Some of the plot developments feel like a bit of a stretch. It’s immensely fortunate that, no sooner have Stephen and Willingdon’s rather wet daughter Ann (Sheila Manahan) arrived in the Capital, they see her dad entering a Tube station. And I can’t see a government announcing a threat like this to the Nation, even back in the purportedly more open 1950s. (I thought the newspaper shown at one point gave the year as 1952, but I may have been mistaken; it’s certainly not a sweltering August, whatever year it is, since Willingdon is most express in buying a replacement overcoat.)
But this development does mean that we’re treated to the eeriest scenes of a deserted London this side of The Avengers/Doctor Who/28 Days Later. And certainly, the most evocatively filmed ones. The long shot where Willingdon runs down a deserted street away from an encroaching searchlight could be lifted from an HG Wells adaptation. There’s a documentary feel to the evacuation scenes (it even answers questions such as “What will happen to all the animals?), which may be consciously echoing those wartime public information films where everyone maintains a cheery grit (on the other hand, the army shoots looters so neither are they pulling their punches). It’s possibly a fair criticism that the movie has nowhere much to go once it sets up its store in the Capital; indeed, it relies almost wholly on Willingdon’s lack of pre-planning (fair enough, he’s not in the best of mental health) to sustain tension. But this lends the proceedings an air of spontaneity; the professor’s encounters develop naturally for the most part (the odd chase aside). That slight sense of verité is maintained by some of the devices employed; the use of titles to introduce us to each new dawn in the countdown not only ups the ante but also invites association with the form of a documentary retelling actual events.
I wonder if it’s coincidental that two decades later Dehn would go to the place that Seven Days dared not with Beneath the Planet of the Apes. It may have been at Chuck Heston’s instigation, but this time he set off that damn dirty nuke. Seven Days didn’t need to go that far, though. It still impresses just for bring up the conversation. And, while I suspect that the profile of the movie would be significantly higher if it had scorched London back then, there’s still a tension at the climax; you’re not completely sure which way they’re going to play it. It’s a testament to what a versatile pair the Boulting Brothers were.
* Providing, of course, you buy into what they tell you about the threat to end all threats…**
**Addendum 08/09/22: Hint. You shouldn’t.