[Also known as: Ultimatum]
Director: John Boulting and Roy Boulting
Starring: Barry Jones, André Morell, Olive Sloane, Joan Hickson, Hugh Cross, Sheila Manahan, Ronald Adam, Joan Hickson, Wyndham Goldie, Marie Ney
Screenplay: Frank Harvey and Roy Boulting, based upon a story by Paul Dehn and James Bernard
Though their joint careers as producers, directors and writers extended over some four decades and embraced a variety of styles and genres, the twins John and Roy Boulting are best known for their excoriating portraits of post-war Britain. While for the most part the brothers leavened their distasteful dose with comedy, they played it straight in both of what are arguably their two best films: 1948’s Brighton Rock, widely considered the definitive British noir; and the 1950 thriller, Seven Days To Noon.
A letter received by the Prime Minister (Ronald Adam) is passed on to Superintendent Folland (André Morell) of the Special Branch: though he too assumes it is either a hoax or the work of a crank, he takes the precaution of contacting a certain government research laboratory. When he discovers that the apparent writer of the letter, a Professor Willingdon (Barry Jones), has not been seen since the previous day, Folland begins to take the letter seriously: he orders an inventory of the laboratory’s ordnance.
On site, Folland learns that Willingdon has not been at the laboratory since the middle of the previous day. In company with the Professor’s assistant, Stephen Lane (Hugh Cross), Folland visits Mrs Willingdon (Marie Ney) and her daughter, Ann (Sheila Manahan). They do not know where Willingdon is either but are unconcerned, as he often spends a night away; they furnish a recent description of his clothing and the bag he was probably carrying. As they leave, Folland tells Lane that he wants him to accompany him back to London. Lane agrees, but insists upon knowing what is going on. Folland then reveals that Willingdon has taken from the laboratory a nuclear device small enough to fit into the Gladstone bag he habitually carries; and that he has written to the Prime Minister insisting that, before noon the following Sunday, he announce that Britain will unilaterally disarm itself of nuclear weapons, and commit to not making any more—otherwise he, Willingdon, will detonate his device in the heart of London…
It is possible to watch Seven Days To Noon simply as a thriller, a chase film: from the discovery that Willingdon really has taken a bomb, its surface narrative divides between the efforts of the authorities to locate the rogue scientist, and Willingdon’s own efforts to remain uncaught while the seven days of his ultimatum play out. However, it is what is going on behind this familiar surface scenario that is so fascinating.
In the first place, there’s the film’s sense of “dislocation”, that is, the playing out of a genre we tend to think of as exclusively American not just in England, but literally upon the streets of London. The film was not only shot largely on location, but gets many of its effects from the combination of familiar, comforting landmarks and reminders of the war not so long ended, in buildings either missing altogether or still suffering from bombing damage. The film’s climax plays out in and around St Stephen’s, Westminster, which bears a sign asking for donations: Blitzed ten years ago, please help us rebuild. Furthermore, the producers somehow arranged for large sections of London to be cleared for the filming, resulting in numerous chilling shots of an empty and silent city.
The general attitude of Seven Days To Noon is also disturbing. British war films were always different in tone from their American counterparts, being more clear-eyed about the conflict, less inclined to wave flags and make speeches, far more willing to admit mistakes (proximity will do that); but this film takes it even further. There’s a suggestion here that whatever may have been gained by the war, something precious has been lost forever: perhaps a sense of right and wrong. There’s a hard, even a nasty edge to this film: not only does the evacuation of London prompt looting, but a looter is shot without warning; a soldier is seen helping himself to items from one of the houses he searches; while a loud-mouthed bar-fly coolly proposes a pre-emptive and unannounced nuclear strike upon the Soviet Union (people are aware of a war threat, but it occurs to no-one that the danger is home-grown).
(This film also deals bluntly with a particular horror of war that previously went largely unacknowledged: that those evacuated from London were forced to leave their pets behind. This detail is dwelt upon here, with many distressing shots of abandoned cats and dogs – and chickens. There is also a scene in London Zoo, where agitated animals left without their keepers pace as soldiers search the premises.)
Yet perhaps the most remarkable thing about Seven Days To Noon is its attitude to Willingdon. These days, with the voice of bitter experience, we’d call him a terrorist; even a suicide bomber, given that he clearly has no intention of surviving the detonation of the nuclear device (and in fact, given its design, cannot); but even in the more naïve time of this film’s production, the magnitude of the danger posed by Willingdon, and the necessity of finding and stopping him at any cost, is recognised and accepted from the first moments of the crisis.
Yet for all this, Seven Days To Noon allows itself to express a curious degree of sympathy for Willingdon—not for what he is doing, but for the circumstances that have driven him to this action. The “face of terror” in this film is that of a sad, frightened little man who has been pushed past the limits of his endurance.
It is initially assumed that there is an ideological basis for Willingdon’s actions, but in response to questioning on the point Lane asserts that he has “no politics” (most scientists don’t, in the sense of that question); furthermore, we learn that MI-5 has nothing on him.
(One intriguing touch is the detail that Willingdon is a graduate of Cambridge. Of course he would be, since that university’s specialty was maths and science; but given what we know now about the “Cambridge Spy Ring”, it adds an accidental note of Cold War espionage to the proceedings.)
From politics, Folland shifts to money, a suspicion that, “Someone put him up to it”; but as soon emerges, Willingdon’s motivation is far more personal.
Learning that he was the last person to see Willingdon before he disappeared, Folland calls upon the vicar, Mr Burgess (Wyndham Goldie), his friend, frequent chess-partner and confidante. Burgess has qualms over the latter, both as a friend and a minister, but convinced of the urgency of the matter, he admits that he had seen for several months that Willingdon was a very troubled man:
Burgess: “I think he’d lost faith. I think he had lost all the faith he once had in the value of what he was doing, and where it was leading us all. I wish I could have been more help to him, but he was so alone: isolated by the very nature of his work…”
Among the first things we learn about Willingdon is that he was a member of, “The British team to New Mexico” in 1943; so he’s been in this pressure cooker for seven years—having seen during that time, in Japan, the possible consequences of his work. The vicar further reveals that Willingdon asked him what he would do, if he became convinced that his life’s work was being put to “an evil purpose”.
Folland then questions Burgess as to whether, in his opinion, Willingdon’s mind had become “unbalanced”. The vicar declines to give an opinion on that point; however—
Burgess: “If it had, perhaps we’re to blame. After all, Folland, we placed this intolerable burden on his shoulders—and left him alone to deal with it.”
Meanwhile, Lane and Ann are getting their own answer to Folland’s question, having found a batch of Willingdon’s papers scrawled over with biblical quotations and, perhaps even more ominously, Milton’s Samson Agonistes:
O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon,
Irrecoverably dark, total eclipse
Without all hope of day!
There is eventually a sympathy shift back the other way in Seven Days To Noon—yet it is not so much because of the overarching situation, as because of Willingdon’s mistreatment of an individual.
Upon reaching London, Willingdon first finds shelter in the furnished room of a Mrs Peckett (a startlingly young, albeit still middle-aged, Joan Hickson—with a cigarette dangling permanently from her lips and a household full of cats, although refreshingly without any accompanying suggestion of “crazy”). His tenure there is brief, however, because his nervous pacing and obvious state of extreme tension attract Mrs Peckett’s attention and raise her fears—not because of the actual crisis, but because the so-far oblivious newspapers are still concentrated upon the police’s failure to apprehend, “The Landlady Killer.”
Willingdon is next taken in by an over-the-hill showgirl, known only as “Goldie” (Olive Sloane), after her dog (a rather adorable King Charles spaniel) takes a liking to him. In one of this film’s more eyebrow-raising touches, it is clear that, having been rejected for a stage-job, Goldie is intending to supplement her coffers with a little amateur prostitution when she takes Willingdon home. He, however, is entirely oblivious to her overtures; and the next morning, Goldie is delighted to discover that she has nevertheless earned two pounds.
That day proves the crisis point for both of them, however. With the search for Willingdon having so far failed, the Prime Minister is forced both to explain the situation to the population at large, and to begin the evacuation of that area of London calculated to be in the danger zone should Willingdon detonate his device, as he has indicated he intends to do, at “the seat of government”, that is, Westminster.
(The very nature of the ultimatum allows time for this evacuation, although whether this was Willingdon’s intention, to minimise casualties, is left uncertain.)
At the same time, huge pictures of Willingdon are plastered all over the city—alerting Willingdon to the immediacy of his danger, and Goldie to the identity of her gentleman-caller.
Later they meet again, at her house, after she has told her story to the authorities. She returns to pack a few things for her own escape from London, only to find that Willingdon, with nowhere else to go, has taken refuge there. And he seizes her, holding her prisoner as the clock ticks down…
By Sunday, the evacuation is complete. The Prime Minister and the Cabinet are the last to leave. The danger-zone remains occupied only by the military forces detailed to conduct a minute and ever-more contracting search; by Folland and his Special Branch forces, who must stay even if / when the soldiers are released; and by Ann Willingdon and Stephen Lane: the former staying in the hope that, should they find him, she might still be able to talk her father out of it; the latter, conversely, because he might be able to disarm the device—if they find it in time…
Footnote: The device stolen by Willingdon lends something of a science-fiction touch to Seven Days To Noon, in that when the film was made, no devices that small had been developed. Now, however…