Day the Earth Caught Fire [1961]

Despite its melodramatic title, which carried on a '50s doomsday naming convention, this taut 1961 English science fiction thriller offers an object lesson in the power of story over special effects. When both the Soviets and the West detonate nuclear tests simultaneously, the seismic double whammy jolts the earth off its axis and onto a new orbit sending it fatally closer to the sun--a fate that writer-director-producer Val Guest views from the street-level perspective of its principal characters, rather than an off-world vantage point. The street in question, however, is London's Fleet Street, the venerable hub of its newspaper and tabloid publishers, and the hard-nosed reporters growing realization that their number is up carries its own stark punch. Edward Judd is Peter Stenning, a rugged, appropriately grim reporter, Leo McKern is tough but compassionate editor Bill Maguire, and Janet Munro is Stenning's love interest, in an elfin, sexy turn that's a striking contrast to her best-known turn in Disney's Darby O'Gill and the Little People. With an effects arsenal that consists largely of a spray bottle to apply beads of "sweat," Guest and his small but crack cast are surprisingly effective, and the cold war plot hook still works, thanks to its uncomfortable proximity to more contemporary environmental terrors. --Sam Sutherland

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