Tuesday 6 January 2009

Seven Days to Noon (1950)

Superintendent Folland of the Special Branch gets an interesting problem dumped into his lap one morning. What would appear at first glance to be a hoax letter has been posted to the Prime Minister at No 10, but it's not something that can safely be ignored. It's from Prof John Willingdon, a major scientist, a senior research fellow at a governnment research laboratory working on atomic weapons. He's apparently rather concerned about the use to which his work is being put, so much so that he steals a UR12 atomic bomb and through the letter threatens to detonate it in the middle of London in a week's time if the British government doesn't announce the end of its atomic weapons research programme.

Of course it isn't a hoax. Willingdon is deadly serious, as deadly serious as he is apparently mad, and Folland has a serious search on his hands. He also has a very tight seven days to find Willingdon, who in London is a very small needle in a very big haystack, but he does have some powerful resources to draw on: not just the support of the police and the armed forces and the full backing of the prime minister, but also more personal help from Steve Lane, Willingdon's assistant at the research lab at Wallingford.

When I first saw a brief synopsis for this film I expected a dry comedy, because it's an English film from the middle of the last century directed by the Boulting Brothers, Roy and John, makers of classic comedies like Carlton-Browne of the FO, I'm All Right Jack and Heavens Above! There is some dark humour here but it's no comedy, instead a highly effective thriller. It's underacted by the leads (especially Barry Jones as Willingdon and André Morell as Folland), presumably deliberately so in order to aid the tension and some memorable supporting performances by Joan Hickson and Olive Sloane.

And that tension is palpable as the search escalates and Willingdon, evades his pursuers, sometimes by luck and sometimes by judgement. He may be mad but he isn't stupid, and the near misses are more believable than any I've seen elsewhere. The story is very dry, and while there's much to appreciate from a cinematic standpoint, it's hardly a laugh a minute. There are no Hollywood heroics here, no great fight scenes, no stunts. It's dry and serious and thoughtful, driven by character and detail, and it's as thorough as the search it contains, performed by capable people who want to get do their jobs, do them right and get the hell out of there. Don't get me wrong: they're not perfect and some are more than happy to take advantage in a time of crisis, but they're utterly believable given the circumstances.

And all of this just adds to the sheer unadulterated tension. I watched this late at night which may not have been the greatest idea in the world as my body sorely wanted to fall asleep, aided no doubt by the sombre nature of the film and its accompanying score, especially as the endgame approaches and the lead characters are stuck waiting and hoping. my brain wouldn't let go and my eyes couldn't leave the screen. This is real edge of the seat, nail biting, hold your breath stuff, not punctuated by much at all: not a lot of relief or dry English wit, though I particularly liked the reply that Steve Lane, gives to the prime minister when asked what Willingdon's politics are: he says that generally they were to keep away from politicians.

There are a few details worthy of mention. Olive Sloane is astounding but Joan Hickson is excellent too, in a far smaller role. I first saw Hickson as Miss Marple on BBC TV, where she became in the eyes of many the truest Miss Marple of them all. It was obvious that she was a good actress, but only more recently have I started to realise just how good she was: every part I see her play seems to be very different from any other, yet still done very believably indeed.

Ronald Adam was doing an obvious Churchill impersonation as the Hon Arthur Lytton, the Prime Minister. Churchill had already served one term as PM, the most crucial term of all, during the Second World War, and he would return to the position in 1951, a year after this film. There's even a surprising use of the old Dragnet one liner: 'just the facts, ma'am, just the facts.' OK, it wasn't 'ma'am', but otherwise it was spot on and Dragnet didn't come along for another year. Given that this film got American exposure, to the degree of winning the Oscar for best screenplay, it would appear that Jack Webb stole that line from the Brits!

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