The creepiest movie ever made did not require ghouls, slashers, aliens, or CGI trickery to create a brilliant state of viewer unease. All it required was a single man lost in his own madness. The film in question is Daniel Bourla’s 1974 feature “The Noah,” which is a disturbing journey into genuine terror via the torment of a lost soul whose mind has hopelessly frayed.
“The Noah” opens on the beach of a tropical island. A raft washes on shore and out pops a somewhat mature American soldier (played by Robert Strauss). The soldier surveys the beach and removes the contents of his raft, which includes a golf bag full of clubs. He explores the island and discovers a shack which seemed to have passed through different ownership over the years: a pin-up of Rita Hayworth on one wall faces photos of Marx, Lenin and Mao on the other.
The soldier sets up housekeeping in the shack, sweeping away the dust and grime within the structure while constructing a sturdy latrine outside. His days are spent in silence and solitude, with occasional diversions such as flying a dragon-shaped kite which he discovered in the shack. But over time, it seems that the isolation leads to depression. His appearance becomes slightly sloppy and the kite gets stuck in a tree, torn and abandoned.
One day, there is a voice calling the soldier by his first name, which happens to be Noah. There is no embodiment of the voice, but the lack of a living being does not bother Noah, who recognizes the voice and quickly establishes military-issue rank on the island. “If you play ball with me, I’ll play ball with you and we’ll both get along fine,” says Noah, who gives the voice the name of Friday.
In his initial conversation with Friday, Noah explains his recent history. He was a career Army man who was within weeks of retirement when a nuclear war broke out. Radioactive rain killed those who were not wiped out in the atomic blast. Noah was the sole survivor from his battalion and, it would seem, from the human race.
Friday quickly becomes Noah’s best friend and confidante, but things go awry when another voice arrives. This voice is a woman, who prefers Friday to Noah. This preference makes Noah jealous, and when Noah throws himself a birthday party the woman spends her time with Friday rather than Noah. When Noah catches the two voices having sex, he expels them from his settlement amid a venomous outpouring of bitter words.
Time passes and Noah grows a long grey beard. A new voice keeps him company, this time belonging to an awe-struck child. Noah takes it upon himself to teach the child and the voices of other children on how to become proper adults. Using a blackboard set up before rows of empty chairs, Noah’s lessons range from topics including economics to veneral disease prevention. Upon graduation, the class sings out praises of Noah and he responds like a benevolent monarch greeting his subject.
But things go awry. A junkyard of broken down jeeps is ripe with sounds and news flashes of the recent violent past. Noah tries to bring order, even creating his own Ten Commandments to lay down new laws, but it does not work and he determines that the only way to maintain stability is through military maneuvers. In the midst of a terrible rainstorm, Noah takes a lantern and gathers together a phantom battalion to march into the maelstrom. Slices of wartime radio broadcasts fill Noah’s night: Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Russian announcement of the siege of Stalingrad, even Bob Hope joking for the troops. Then comes President Truman announcing the bombing of Hiroshima. Yet the noise and the rain don’t end. Noah marches through the rainy night, bombarded with news flashes of the Cold War era, the Vietnam War, and the Kennedy assassination.
Unable to stop the noise, Noah grabs a machine gun from his shack and runs into the night. He taunts his invisible adversaries and fires into what he sees. Suddenly, his frayed mental state is restored and he realizes what he is doing. “I don’t want to be alone,” he whimpers, pathetically. “Please? Someone?”
In the morning, Noah spots the radiation detection badge on his Army uniform. The badge has turned black, signaling the fatal radiation level which he sought to escape has invaded the island. In his full dress uniform, Noah quietly takes a seat on the porch of his shack, staring out into the sea while calmly awaiting for his demise from the nuclear fallout.
Shot in a murky black-and-white, “The Noah” is a harrowing psychological drama where terror is born from within. Noah’s tormentors are entirely invisible, and ultimately his killer is invisible as well. Using POV camerawork to give a vision to the phantom voices (which include Geoffrey Holder as Friday and Sally Kirkland as the woman), “The Noah” is a daring attempt to capture the inner conflict of a man driven to mental illness by circumstances beyond his control.
“The Noah” is rich with strange and powerful imagery married against a wild aural tapestry. Case in point: during the party where the woman flirts shamelessly with Friday, cha-cha dance music is heard. Noah’s eyes follow the invisible couple as his hands grasp a pair of hand puppets, one male and one female. The soundtrack fills with the catchy music and the giggly rapture of the dancing pair, and the puppets are drawn closer until their heads tilt so they can enjoy a deep and erotic kiss. It is a relatively brief and simple scene, yet in its simplicity is a shock to recognize where Noah’s mind has gone.
The success of “The Noah” is based heavily on the performance by Robert Strauss, a gravelly voice character actor best known for comic supporting roles, including his Oscar-nominated part in “Stalag 17″ (1953). He never achieved leading man status and he was already semi-retired when “The Noah” was shot. Yet he gives the performance of a lifetime as the soldier whose devotion to the Army was rewarded with betrayal by the world, indifference by many of his military colleagues, and the inability to earn respect. It is a complex role which he brilliantly pulls off, from happily savoring the adulation of his invisible fans to miserably expelling Friday and the woman with an outburst of horrific jealousy. In the end, when he realizes his demise is near, the hurt reflected in his eyes is among the most haunted visage anyone could see in a film.
Alas, few people have ever seen “The Noah.” The film was shot in 1968, but was not presented until a brief festival circuit run in 1974. “The Noah” was never theatrically released and remained unseen until 1994, when CUNY-TV (the television station for the City University of New York) broadcast the film twice as a part of a classic cinema series. To date, the film has never been commercially released on home video or DVD.
The obscurity in which “The Noah” dwells is among the cruelest fates ever given to an original and compelling work of art. “The Noah” is an amazing, original and shattering experience. This one is truly a lost classic.
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Posted on January 14, 2005 in Features by Phil Hall
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