Sometimes all one needs is a compelling story about serious themes put together by fairly
competent people to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts. This is Not a Test (1962) is definitely in that category.
Condition Yellow. Air Raid. Air Raid.... Extreme Emergency.... This is not a
The movie is a taut, suspenseful little film that defies the lack of big budget or even
multiple locations (not to mention acting that is mostly adequate) to become a lost gem of a film. Using primarily a single location (a small stretch of desert highway) and filmed at night), the whole thing feels more like a play than a film. It's less about action but rather the characters of the people who end up at the police roadblock where they are directed to stay until given the all clear. The location work actually improves the film in putting the actors in a real place instead of a soundstage. You can even see the night breeze slightly ruffling their hair, something that not only gives verisimilitude but gives the viewer the chill that undoubtedly came with it.
It opens with a highway patrolman being told to set up a roadblock and to not allow any traffic to pass. The officer represents the appeal to authority to control crisis and panic (regretfully, the actor is probably the least talented or believable of the cast). If everyone will just follow the protocol, then they will be okay. Then there is a slice of humanity as one would expect (well, it's 1962they're all white). A semi truck driver whose hitchhiker is wanted for murder and suspected of other killings. He escapes. While an unnecessary plot device, it lends an added sense of immediate danger (as opposed to the impending danger of nuclear attackit's not like we all don't already know that was what wasn't a test). It divides the attention and gives the film more depth.
Execute severest measures to control hysteria and keep traffic flowing. Martial Law. Emphasize: Martial Law.
There's a married couple whose relationship begins to tear apart as the film proceeds. Another couple that never seem quite as together as they want to believe; the woman who finds the only way to cope with the reality of what is happening is to give in completely to her alcoholism. And elderly farmer and his granddaughter. He will come to represent calm, quiet acceptance of the inevitable and she, the slim possibility of survival as well as the cruelty of such a situation on the young and innocent. Later on, a band of looters shows up to ransack the truck ("Discount World") and steal the fuel. The roadblockers hope to use it as shelter from the expected attack.
As far as "story," there isn't much of one. The beginning and end are there and the film is more about little snapshots of the characters here and there along that timeline. That's what makes it work. Even though they are not great actors (few of them to have done much worklittle or no film and a little television with the exception of the officer and one other), one comes to care about them beyond that sense of identification-sympathy one gets from viewing people in jeopardy. They become stripped of their previous lives. Regret and resentment bubble to the surface. Material goods becoming mere fantasy playthings as they unload them from the truck to make room for the desperate. Then there's the decision of what to do with a pet dog when air and water are to become a commodity in short supply.
And true to itself (unlike so many Hollywood films), there is no happy ending. Perhaps a glimmer of hope but it's left to the viewer's imagination. Relentless in its progression to the inevitable, the movie pulls no punches and that's why it works.
"The end of the world."
"It doesn't seem possible."
"That's because people have been talking about it for so long"
Truly a film of its time, it's from deep in the fertile soil of the Cold War and the nuclear fear that was a very real, palpable thing. I grew up at the very end of the Cold War, but knew enough about the subject (pamphlets handed out by some anti-nuke group at a local mallthe description of the devastation scared the shit out of me) that I remember lying awake in bed listening to planes overhead that seemed to just get louder and louder. The heart slowing down only after the jet sound fades. I can't imagine what it was like at the height of the Cold War (had an uncle was in the Navy in the Caribbean during the Cuban Missile Crisis). "Duck and Cover" is quaint and funny today, but it was a part of something very serious and very much on the minds of millions of people.
As the movie proceeds, the of tension grows and grows, despite the only connection to the impending crisis and disaster are disembodied reports over the police radio. At the same time, tensions within the group rise and fall, reach fever pitch and despair. For the most part, though, that wonderful human traitthe will to survivecontinues for most of the characters.
There are little moments of humanity in between the group huddled together or in pairs trying to swallow the fear building inside. Upon finding Christmas ornaments in the semi trailer, one remarks philosophically "...a little incongruous, isn't it? A symbol of the joyous celebration of the savior of man." The suspected murderer doesn't harm one woman because was "nice" to him while the others weren't. Grandpa sends his daughter off to maybe escape while he plans to climb up the mountain and sit and watch it happen.
"Look man, if the world's gonna end and me and my chick wanna spend it standing in front of a bar, it's none of your business."
(Apparently it's the shotgun barrel's business; after which the speaker gets handcuffed to his car.) Not wanting to oversell it, there are more than the stuff mentioned (acting is a bit stiff). Occasionally, the dialogue gets a little overwrought (again making it seem made more for the theater than the silver screen). And one guy is clearly too old to be dropping the occasional beat slang. Then there's the opening sequence. After the officer is told to set up the emergency roadblock, he races off. It was already established that it was just after 4 AM. As the car drives along and the credits pop up over the shot, it becomes early dawn and morning isn't far away. Except when he gets to his destination. Pitch dark again. Fortunately things improve. On the other hand, that aside, the movie taking place roughly in real timeonce the roadblock is set up(just over 70 minutes), it keeps the tension flowing. Even the necessity of using strong lights to film at night is done well enough to avoid ruining the suspense.
Then there's the scene with the chickens. The suspected killer goes on a rampage when he finds he can't escape in one of the cars. He goes to grandpa's truck and destroys the cages (full of real live chickens) by throwing them on the road and even throwing the chickens. Perhaps no chickens were harmed in the making of this film, but it sure looks like they could've been.
Not entirely sure about the science involved. They are deliberately vague on just where they are (though once giving hints to prove they were right in the center of a target area) and without knowing more it's best not to worry about it. That they could survive two weeks in a medium-sized (if not small) semi trailer with little water and only a little canned food is highly doubtfulthough that nagging doubt is evident in some of the characters. It's built into the weave of the plotthe sense that all this work may come to nothing. The ending suggests that is exactly what happens.
A couple of odds and ends. The people who produced/directed/wrote the film only worked on this film. It's their only credit. Weird. There is one scene where the officer completely destroys cases of Smirnoff vodka. No real commentary. Just sorta pissed me off. What a waste.
Look, I know it's not Bergman and it's not Kubrick. But it is really surprisingly good.
Sources: personal copy, Internet Movie Database.