“The Next Voice You Hear” (1950) has all the typical elements of a 1950s science fiction film. It gives us what are supposed to be typical average Americans becoming completely unnerved by an unexplained and unnatural phenomenon. There is a tense undercurrent running in their not-so-safe-as-they-think world. Then suddenly, they are visited upon by an unstoppable force. In this case, it happens to be the voice of God.
This quiet, fascinating movie has all the footprints of the backwash of World War II and the early days of the Cold War, when the worst trouble the world had ever seen quickly melted away into, not relief, but anxiety-driven competition with Communist bloc countries and nightmares over the atom bomb. The victory proclaimed at the end of the war was lessened by the realization of “what do we do now?” So, too, when God speaks through the radio, the people in this story have to decide is it real, and if so, what we do now?
James Whitmore and Nancy Davis had been in only a few films before they were paired as Joe and Mary Smith in this movie. They have an easy chemistry, at turns joking and teasing; at turns sweetly affectionate. They have a young son, and are expecting the birth of their second child any day. A couple of nice touches in this film include the way Whitmore lightly touches his wife’s face, stroking her with one finger behind her ear, repeated when he wants to comfort her, or just get her attention. Also, the way in which Miss Davis appears beautifully unglamorous, something about her pallid face more than her maternity top tells us not only is she pregnant but is really, really tired of it and just wants to have this baby. It is one of the few films of this period, I think, where the appearance of pregnancy is illustrated a bit more realistically than before.
Also, a note on the score by David Raksin, which we hear at the opening titles and at the end of the film. It is hymn-like, with elements that are both sobering and majestic, and yet there is a wistful, soaring quality to the music that is really very stirring and sweet. Mr. Raksin had also done the haunting score to “Laura” (1944).
The Smiths live in a Los Angeles suburb, in a very small house filled with furnishings that look they came from the box tops mom saves, or from trading stamps. Mr. Whitmore plays a common working man, who takes his lunch to the aircraft factory in a metal lunchbox and gripes about his bullying supervisor. The starter on his car is broken and floods the carburetor every morning. He works as hard as he can but never seems to get ahead, and he worries about his wife and the coming baby. He is a good guy with a bit of a temper, who gets flustered a bit, but clearly loves his family.
Miss Davis plays her typical housewife role with charming understatement. She is quite natural as a woman just as set in her rut as her husband is set in his, and a little desperate as to how to get out of it and not sure that she wants to. She has a way of studying her scene partners, and that goes a long way to create a bond with them for the audience. She exudes warmth in a role that might not otherwise have a lot of meat to it. One is astonished that she will one day, as the wife of Ronald Regan, become First Lady of the United States. Here she is so preoccupied with sneaking a restricted extra piece of bread and butter that we cannot envision her having State dinners in the White House.
There are a lot of quiet, introspective and insightful moments to this film, even when the fireworks start happening when God interrupts our regularly scheduled broadcast to talk on the radio. Even the fireworks are quiet, and we never actually hear the voice of God. The characters do in another room, but our attention is always focused somewhere else so we always miss it. The subtlety with which this film discusses God, possibly the most controversial subject in the history of mankind, is remarkable when we consider that William A. Wellman directed the film. Mr. Wellman brought us gritty gangster films in the 1930s, sexy screwball comedies, and films which pushed the envelope in pre-Code days.
At first Joe Smith thinks the voice of God is a hoax, and there is a funny bit when his wife asks it if sounded like Lionel Barrymore, a staple on radio as much as in the movies, famous for his Scrooge. She also suggests it might be an Orson Welles production, recalling “The War of the Worlds” broadcast of 1938.
God announces he will be with us for the next few days.
“Wouldn’t it be kind of funny if it really was God?” Mary Smith wonders aloud, and we are allowed another of several nice, slow close-ups. The use of silence to increase dramatic tension between characters reminds me a little of director William Wyler’s technique in his films.
The Smiths cannot be bothered fretting over God, though. They have lives to live. Things continually go wrong for Joe, taking over his sick son’s paper route for the day and getting chased by a dog, getting tickets from a traffic cop, getting bawled out at work.
Then another radio message from God seems to indicate the Creator is just as bewildered by them as they are about Him. Some still think it is a hoax, but they read in the newspaper that the voice is heard all over the country and in Europe. The FCC begins an investigation.
Tellingly for the era, there are no reports “from behind the Iron Curtain.” Their son asks Joe Smith how God is heard in France, and Joe responds, “I guess there’s enough people over there that understand English.” But the boy rejects this, deciding that if the voice is really God’s, He could do the impossible and speak to everybody in a way everybody could understand.
“If it’s God, I guess he could do anything.” Children accept the powers of superheroes without analyzing it too much. His dad is still having a problem rationalizing it. His buddies wonder if the Russians are pulling the hoax.
As the days pass, and the radio message from God occurs every night at 8:30, they begin to believe it is Him, and they get freaked. But they still have jobs to go to, even though they begin to await a terrible judgment and everybody washes his car in the neighborhood as if that’s going to set things right with the Lord. Mary has false labor after a panicky rush to the hospital, and wearily, and sheepishly mumbles after a long night, “Feel like such a fool leaving here as big as when I came in.” It is these continual reminders of normality that make the film so compelling, as if they counterbalance this new Twilight Zone world to which they must adjust.
God reminds them of His miracles, things as normal as rain and trees, and prods them to create miracles of their own, “miracles of understanding, and peace, and loving kindness.”
Yet some, like the Smith’s visiting Aunt Ethel, are convinced Judgment Day is at hand and they will be punished. The fear that has been building up over the days is now acute, and erupts, and they fight, and they drink, and they nearly come apart.
Joe Smith confronts his supervisor from work, also his neighbor. He is an atheist and berates Joe, “People silly enough to believe in God are silly enough to believe God’s talking on the radio.” It is a great leveling remark, and when Joe tells him he does not have a right to talk that way, he reminds Joe, and us, that he does.
Joe, Mary, and their son fear God plenty now, and fear the coming of the new baby, as Mary’s mother died in childbirth. They are all obsessed by danger. Eventually, they decide that they should not be afraid of life, and they should not be afraid of God. They still haven’t gotten around to not being afraid of the Russians yet or nuclear war, but one step at a time.
They pull themselves together to face whatever is their inevitable fate, and gather at a packed church where a radio, and not a minister, speaks to them from the pulpit. It seems to say that mass communication has become our new religion, but I suppose that is a topic for another time. Still, the idea is intriguing.
They are told by the announcer that all people of all religions are waiting for God’s message by radio, in churches, temples, synagogues, and mosques. Then his intro for the Almighty, “And the next voice you hear….” is met with silence.
We have another nerve-racking silent moment, and then the minister suddenly realizes that it’s the seventh day and God must be resting.
Show’s over, but the miracles continue as Mary goes into labor and delivers a baby daughter. Her big brother asks dad, “Our baby, what will she do when she’s afraid? She never heard the Voice.” They will just have to tell her about it, and Joe strokes the ear of his drugged up wife as she is wheeled out of the delivery room, to that swelling, sweet music. The film does not always measure up to the sum total of its parts, but it is an intriguing attempt to deal with a difficult subject without being too preachy or contriving a pat solution to our most basic impulse of belief and faith, and what happens when you’re called upon to evaluate all that.