Tales of terrorists holding civilization to ransom with the threat of weapons of mass destruction have become two a penny. But it wasn’t always so; back in the early days of the Cold War such a concept hadn’t yet been milked for all it was worth. The idea, at that point, was still fresh and perhaps even more terrifying given that the notion of worldwide holocaust was one that people were only gradually coming to terms with. Seven Days to Noon (1950) is a slow burning little picture that adopts a semi-documentary approach, neatly sidestepping gaudy sensationalism in favour of relentlessly rising tension.
The low-key mood is struck from the very beginning, with a postman calmly doing his Monday morning rounds and dropping the day’s correspondence through the mailbox of 10 Downing Street. Among the various items addressed to the Prime Minister is a simple envelope sent by a Professor Willingdon (Barry Jones), and containing an ultimatum that could be either an unpleasant hoax or the stuff of nightmares. The letter in question is passed in due course to the police for further investigation. The man given responsibility for looking into the matter is Superintendent Folland (Andre Morell), and a few simple calls by him establish that this is no leg pulling exercise. Professor Willingdon, the government’s chief atomic research scientist, has disappeared along with a powerful nuclear device. The aforementioned letter lays out his terms: either the government abandons its atomic weapons research or he will detonate the bomb at noon in seven days time, taking half of London with him. That little scene is effectively done with the easy banter between the top policeman and his assistant offering a sense of reassurance, before cutting smoothly but quickly to a close-up of Folland’s suddenly sharpened features as the full import of the words coming down the telephone line dawn on him. With all doubts about Willingdon’s intentions now cleared up, the narrative focus moves to the nondescript little scientist and his trek around the capital. His efforts to remain inconspicuous as the authorities try desperately to locate him make up the bulk of the movie’s running time, intercut with scenes of government departments implementing emergency procedures as discreetly as possible. As Willingdon moves from one seedy lodging to another, all the while agonising over the course of action he’s decided on, there’s a gradual mobilisation underway. The government is in crisis and suspicion is creeping into the minds of a populace still bearing the scars of the recent war. Before panic takes hold the PM addresses the spellbound nation via the radio, and lays the ugly facts before them. It’s interesting that Willingdon finds himself in a museum at the very moment when the government announcement comes. As the PM’s ominous words are broadcast to the grim faced listeners, the little professor stands amid the displays of dinosaur bones – it’s hard to decide whether those old fossils are meant to represent the unyielding determination of the state or the increasingly outmoded humanitarian principles of the troubled scientist pitted against it. The eventual evacuation of the city, as the clock ticks inexorably towards the appointed hour, is an affair of organised chaos, and contrasts with the calm tension of Willingdon as he watches it all in a detached manner with the hapless, tragi-comic woman (Olive Sloane) he’s taken hostage to prevent discovery.
The matter of fact tone of direction adopted by John and Roy Boulting is hard to fault. Even as the situation on screen grows more and more desperate the depiction of it remains steady and never descends into hysteria. The evacuation sequence could easily have fallen victim to an overwrought approach, but instead the cool way it’s shown (with only a few minor concessions to mild panic) adds both urgency and potency. The night scenes of the abandoned city are especially effective; the probing beams of searchlights and the tramping of heavy army boots are the only accompaniment to Willingdon’s final flight across London, dodging down darkened alleys and ducking into shadowy doorways. It’s also a snapshot of a now disappeared world, where crowds gather around communal radio sets to hear the latest government pronouncement and massive wanted posters of the fugitive scientist are plastered everywhere. It reminds us that there was an age before rolling news coverage and instant tweets and texts when panic could be held in check for a time rather than openly encouraged. If aspects of the film hark back to an earlier period, then others remain stubbornly prescient. The moral conundrum at the heart of the picture is every bit as relevant today as it was sixty years ago, and questions about the price of progress are still unresolved. Barry Jones was a fine piece of casting as the figure at the centre of the storm, his gentle features indicating an essentially good man driven to the brink of madness by the colossal responsibility he’s borne, the isolation imposed by that responsibility and the moral uncertainties he feels. He’s no wild-eyed fanatic with a grudge but a man with a conscience who’s allowed his sense of balance and proportion to slip. Similarly, Andre Morell, as the policeman tracking Willingdon, is no two-fisted superhero. Instead, we get an assured and competent professional who knows full well the extent of the threat he’s facing. There’s a wonderful economy to his movements that highlights the pressure he’s under and his features have a controlled expressiveness that get the tension across far more succinctly than any amount of histrionic hamming.
Seven Days to Noon is available on DVD in the UK from Optimum. The film was initially issued in a false widescreen transfer (an impossibility for a production of this vintage) but later withdrawn and replaced with a corrected version presenting the image at 1.33:1, as it should be. The transfer is a clean, sharp affair with good contrast and minimal damage. The disc is, however, totally barebones with only the main menu and scene selection offered. Still, it can be had for a very good price and the film is strong enough to speak for itself. It’s a tight little thriller with an intelligent script, solid central performances and offers an attractive combination of the quaint and the timeless. If you’re looking for some food for thought along with your entertainment then this is recommended.