Roseanne Rogers (Susan Douglas Rubes) trudges from place to place, searching for another living human being. A Mountain News headline reports a scientist's warning that detonating a new type of atomic bomb could cause the extinction of humanity.
Rosanne eventually makes her way to her aunt's isolated hillside house and faints when she finds Michael (William Phipps) already living there. At first she is too numb to speak and slow to recover. She later resists Michael's friendly attempt to become more intimate, revealing that she is married and also pregnant.
Two more survivors arrive, attracted by the smoke coming from the house's chimney. Oliver P. Barnstaple (Earl Lee) is an elderly bank clerk who is in denial about his situation; he believes he is simply on vacation. Since the atomic disaster, he has been taken care of by Charles (Charles Lampkin), a thoughtful and affable African American. They both survived because they were accidentally locked in a bank vault when the disaster happened. Roseanne was in a hospital's lead-lined X-ray room, while Michael was in an elevator in New York City's Empire State Building.
Barnstaple sickens, but seems to recover and then insists on going to the beach. There, they drag a man named Eric (James Anderson) out of the ocean surf. He is a mountain climber who became stranded on Mount Everest by a blizzard during the atomic disaster. He was flying back to the United States when his aircraft ran out of fuel just short of land. Meanwhile, Barnstaple dies peacefully.
Eric quickly sows discord among the group of survivors: He theorizes that they are somehow immune to the radiation and wants to find and gather together other survivors. Michael, however, is skeptical and warns that radiation will be the most concentrated in the cities Eric wants to search.
The newcomer later reveals himself to be a racist; he can barely stand living with Charles. When Charles objects, he and Eric fight, stopping only when Roseanne goes into labor; she gives birth to a boy, delivered by Michael. Afterwards, while the others work to make a better life, Eric goes off by himself. Maliciously, he drives their jeep through the group's cultivated field, destroying part of their crops. Michael orders Eric to leave, but Eric produces a pistol and announces that he will leave only when he is ready.
Later one night, Eric tells Roseanne that he is going to the city (Oak Ridge). Wanting to discover her husband's fate, Roseanne agrees to go with him, as he had hoped; he insists that she not tell Michael. After stealing supplies, Eric is stopped by a suspicious Charles; in the ensuing struggle, he stabs Charles in the back, killing him.
Once they reach the city, Eric begins looting, while Roseanne goes to her husband's office and then to a nearby hospital's waiting room; there she discovers her husband's skeletal remains. She now wants to return to Michael, but Eric refuses to let her go. They struggle and his shirt sleeve is torn open, revealing unmistakable signs of advanced radiation poisoning. In despair he runs away, not at all immune as his ego had led him to believe.
Rosanne begins the long walk back to the house, but along the way, her son dies. Michael, who has been searching for Rosanne, eventually finds her, and after burying her son, they return to the house. When Michael resumes cultivating the soil, Rosanne fatalistically joins him, both now the heirs to an unknown future.William Phipps as Michael Rogin
Susan Douglas Rubes as Roseanne Rogers
James Anderson as Eric
Charles Lampkin as Charles
Earl Lee as Oliver P. Barnstaple
According to Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies, the film is the first to depict the aftermath of an atomic bomb catastrophe.
The unusual house that is the setting for most of the film was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and owned by producer/director/writer Arch Oboler.
Actor Charles Lampkin introduced Oboler to the prose poem The Creation by James Weldon Johnson and convinced him to include excerpts of it in the final script of Five. It would become Lampkin's soliloquy for his character Charles; this may be the first time that audiences in the USA, Latin America, and Europe were exposed to African-American poetry, albeit not identified as such in the film.
Oboler shot this very low budget feature for $75,000, using as his crew a small group of recent graduates from the University of Southern California film school and starring five (then) unknown actors. Upon its completion, Oboler sold the film to Columbia Pictures for a tidy profit.
Film reviewer Bosley Crowther in his review for The New York Times, noted the characters handicapped the film as much as the tepid plot line created by Arch Oboler, "the five people whom he has selected to forward the race of man are so cheerless, banal and generally static that they stir little interest in their fate. Furthermore, Mr. Oboler has imagined so little of significance for them to do in their fearfully unique situation that there is nothing to be learned from watching them. Mr. Oboler might as well be presenting five castaways on a desert isle."
In a recent review film critic Sean Axmaker lauded the film, writing, "For all of his budgetary limitations, it's a strikingly atmospheric and handsome film, and Oboler creates an eerie sense of isolation with simple techniques."
During the film Great Balls of Fire!, the characters Jerry Lee Lewis and his future wife Myra Gale Brown can be seen watching Five in a scene.