Jeff Smith 9:05 a.m., Jan. 24
Five end-of- the-world movies to see before doomsday
Do the Biblical math: Evangelist Harold Camping + The Scriptures = The end of the world as we know it. I was in my fallout shelter last night speaking with L. Ron Hubbard on the wireless direct from the planet Xenu. He assures me there will be no doomsday. Just in case, here's a quick cinematic primer on what to do if tomorrow turns out to be our last. See you Sunday!
That Obscure Object of Desire (1981):
If ever a director ripped at our retinae and forced us to confront images that would cause most normal folk to cringe, it was that stealthy old surrealist Luis Buñuel. Obscure Object was to be The Master's parting shot, a paradoxical masterwork that pits a standoffish maid, played by two different and equally alluring actresses (Carole Bouquet and Ángela Molina), against a lecherous aristocrat (Fernando Rey, the director's cinematic second self). Buñuel bookended his career with shots of a straight razor slicing open an eyeball and civilization being blown to smithereens. When the end arrives, I want to exit smiling and short of Groucho Marx, there isn't another film artist who has brought more cultivated laughter into my life than Don Buñuel.
The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959): Miner Harry Belafonte extracates himself from a cave only to discover a world ravaged by a nuclear holocaust. News that he is not the last one standing arrives in the form of love-interest Inger Stevens and later a vocally-disapproving Mel Ferrer. The post-apocalyptic images of a barren, pre-CGI Manhattan will pack a wallop long after the film's dated handling of racial issues have faded into antiquity.
Panic in Year Zero (1962):
Star/director Ray Milland wore so many hats during the production that he probably felt the time was right to send his collection of hairpieces off to the dry cleaners to get Martinized. There's not one shot of him sans Stetson throughout the entire film! Admittedly, the thought of Milland piloting a Mercury Monterey, containing son Frankie Avalon and the womenfolk, through a post-apocalyptic Calabasas is ripe for satirical contempt. Yet this AIP atomic scare quickie is held together by Milland's steely self-preservation instincs before the camera and a knowingness not to let things spill over into camp behind.
The Last Man on Earth (1964): Here is a living dead outing long before George Romero made them fashionable (and profitable). A mysterious immunity he developed years earlier turns Vincent Price into the vampire-hunting title character. It's a much more satifying adaptation of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend than the Chuck Heston remake, The Omega Man. Since time is of the essence, I'll save you a rental: this can be found on the bottom half of an MGM Midinite Madness combo-disc paired opposite Panic in Year Zero.
On the Beach (1959): Grab your favorite Matilda and waltz to the trumpet of doom in this all-star nuclear meltdown yarn directed by Stanley Kramer, a Hollywood totem in many ways responsible for the end of cinema as we knew it. On the Beach crashes ashore with a showy and continuous barrage of waterlogged dialog. The big-league cast -- Fred Astaire, Ava Gardner, Tony Perkins, and even Gregory Peck -- and the graceful black-and-white arrangement of cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno's softly-lit frames are what keep me coming back for more. It smells, but so do gasoline and my sneakers, yet there's a part of me that enjoys the aroma. It doesn't hurt that countless childhood viewings have taken their toll forever, placing it on a shelf marked "beyond criticism." And any film that promises the immolation of the handsome, ever-timbered Peck is worth at least a couple of viewings.
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