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Harry Belafonte portrays miner Ralph Burton who appears to be the only survivor of some above-ground nuclear gas explosion. The first part of the movie focuses entirely on Ralph scouring the desolate streets of a debris-filled, obliterated New York City in search for other human life. These early scenes are quite tense and fascinating as Ralph is forced to come to fateful grips with his total isolation and lifeless surroundings. There are lighter, even amusing moments interspersed with the potentially heavy-handed theme as Ralph quite bizarrely sets up a makeshift household for himself and plays "mind games" in an attempt to break the utter monotony of loneliness and preserve his sanity. In the meantime, to keep productive Ralph tinkers around his big city "shop" with newly-found gadgets and radio hardware in a dire effort to communicate with other possible survivors. A bit mystifying though is why we don't see any remnants of human existence anywhere and why everything else...stores, automobiles...are still standing, even in tact, for the most part. Did all signs of humanity just evaporate? Was this a selective nuclear explosion?
Enter lovely, timorous Inger Stevens as Sarah Crandall (the Flesh in the title?), a second survivor, who has been secretly following Ralph but fearful, until now, to make contact. Intriguing conflicts set in immediately as Sarah is white and Ralph black. Knowing they have only each other in the world, they endeavor to break the delicate barriers of fear that distance them.
So far so good. But then the plot takes a turn for the worst with the arrival of a third survivor (the Devil in the title?), villainous Benson Thacker, played here by Mel Ferrer, and the movie becomes a silly, ludicrous romantic triangle. Interest literally explodes and burns as fast as you can say "nuclear war."
In a disappointing, poorly-scripted climax, the men get involved in a deadly cat-and-mouse game with Belafonte and Ferrer vying for the affections of Stevens, gunning for each other on isolated streets and lurking around buildings "High Noon" style. Here we have three mature people, supposedly the only humans left on earth, and they want to knock each other off in order to get the girl! And the final scene is unintentionally laughable. Why they chose such a cop-out ending will always be a mystery. Granted, this move was shot in 1959 and so the racial issues naturally had to be skimmed over. But since they introduced it in the first place by casting Belafonte and Stevens, why not deal with it? With a little more care and originality, they could have scaled new heights and made a daring, confrontive, ground-breaking classic.
Nevertheless, the good points outweigh the bad. Belafonte is terrific especially in his early scenes and Miss Stevens registers quite strongly during their tense exchanges. Most of all, director Ranald MacDougall captures a barren, decimated-looking New York City to awesome, jaw-dropping effect. His huge, looming, shadowy panoramic shots of a deserted Manhattan is a marvel of creativity and cinematography...an incredible feat that is alone worth the price of admission.
Well, almost everybody. Harry hot wires a car and travels to New York City in search of life in the largest population center. After a while he finds it in Inger Stevens. It looks like another Adam and Eve ready to begin again when Mel Ferrer also shows up. By that time Belafonte has established some kind of contact with some unknown foreign survivors somewhere in the post apocalypse world?
Of course with two men, two races, and only one woman, things start to look like business as usual for mankind. I was reminded of Neil Patrick Harris's line from Starship Troopers about how we're in it for the species. Will all three of them and anyone else they contact decide we're in it for the species in The World, the Flesh and the Devil?
Director Ranald McDougall got three good performances out of his small cast. The World, The Flesh And The Devil does ask some thought provoking questions as to whether man is capable of screwing up once again. What kind of culture will they establish and will a Supreme Creator/Deity need to intervene?
By being trapped in a Pennsylvania mine, Belafonte is one of the very few people on earth (as far as we know from the film, only three) to escape annihilation. He manages to get out of the mine on his own (the first of many plot contrivances), goes to New York City and finds it depopulated, except for Inger Stevens, who eventually comes out of hiding. It's mostly a picture about loneliness. As much as we may resent the jostling masses in our midst, what if they were gone?
Actually, it spurs a fantasy, too. Imagine that you had the pickings of all of New York to yourself, and imagine that you were a handyman who could rig up generators and the like, and imagine that you found a comely woman to keep you company. Could be worse.
But we are asked to ignore too much in the picture, the fact that only one person in all of the city survived, the fact that not a single rotting body is shown on the streets, the fact that the shortwave transmissions Belafonte regularly monitors show that the rest of the world is empty, too (except, eventually, for Mel Ferrer, who was sailing during the nuclear blasts)-- all a bit too much. The film tries too hard to be an allegory when it should have been good, logical science fantasy.
Nevertheless, TWTF&TD is well worth a watch.
Some kind of nuclear war has taken place and there are few survivors. No dead bodies, no rotting corpses. No physical body traces of any kind.
Some people have said that Ferrer played a bigot in this film, but I didn't see much of that at all since the main conflict between Belafonte and Ferrer is based more on lust than anything else.
But since this is 1959, we can't show interracial love onscreen because many parts of the country would wind up banning the film, so MGM and Belafonte keep the lust toned down and mostly implied. The viewer should just look at it in the context of the times that it was made in, and not try to apply 2003 standards to something filmed over 40 years ago.
The deserted lower Manhattan streets including Times Square look pretty cool. They must have filmed them on an early Sunday morning in order to keep any traffic disruption to a minimum.
And the ending resorts to a preachy "The Beginning" stamped across the screen as the three of them walk down a deserted Manhattan street. I guess only goodwill comes next, huh?
If you want to see a better "end of the world" flick from the same period, then check out the Arch Oboler's rarely-seen FIVE (1951) or Stanley Kramer's ON THE BEACH, made during the same year as this one. I thought they were done better.
5 out of 10 for clearing out New York in time.
Post-apocalyptic stories have been around for ages -- since the Bible's own last chapter, "Revelations". When it wasn't an alien race deciding to take over our planet for their own purposes of blind conquer in H. G. Wells "War of the Worlds" it was the world turned upside down by the sudden mutation of humankind into vampires, as in Richard Matheson's "I Am Legend." Until the reality of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the mega-powers of the world experimenting with nuclear energy harnessed as the means of mass annihilation took force in the 1940s, science-fiction was little more than tales about Moon colonies, Martian cities, space adventures in other worlds and time travel. Robert A. Heinlein, one of the front-runners of social science fiction, was already writing stories around 1940 based on the potential for human extinction through nuclear warfare. His short story "The Year of the Jackpot" which appeared in 1952 and was part of an anthology called "The Menace from Earth" tackled the destruction of the Earth by nuclear warheads and is one of the most gripping stories of mankind's need for survival even when the odds are against it. The last paragraphs, where the man and the woman await their final end as the Sun sets, is haunting.
THE WORLD, THE FLESH, AND THE DEVIL might as well have been a sequel to "The Year of the Jackpot" told by the points of view of the survivors of this horrific nuclear attack that has destroyed the Earth on a global level. The first half hour is an extended silent film where images of a desolate land prevail as the main character, Ralph (played by Harry Belafonte), emerges from the mine where he's been trapped and finds an overpowering, endless sea of a world where time has frozen and no one is to be found. His slow approach to the truth of the matter is gut-wrenching in its vapid horror -- seeing even little things, like an abandoned umbrella or an empty house. It recalls a much later movie about a different, but equally lethal situation in 28 DAYS LATER... as Cillian Murphy walks among the wreck of a deserted London, unaware he's not alone.
But Ralph thinks he is alone. Arriving at New York in a progressive sequence of images is a knot of foreboding, quiet menace. It seems, at times, he must have fallen through a worm-hole and into a mirror image of the city. Enclosed in darkness, it looms at him so menacingly there is the feeling he would be better off doing an about-face and going elsewhere. The camera tracks his progress, making sure we know just how small he is in a sea of skyscrapers with not a single human in them. Once he discovers the truth, Belafonte's face is completely revealing in its anguish that can only express itself through his luminous face, haunted eyes, and single tear rolling down the side of his face. It's here he decides he must make do as the Last Man on Earth, trying not to lose his sanity when apparently, being sane is now as frightening as being alone.
For a moment, then, the story becomes an exercise in a surreal dream. Belafonte will still be alone on camera for another stretch of time and he acts as if he still has people around him -- all the more unsettling. He has dinner with mannequins, he sings to no one in particular, and plays with his own shadow as if he were trying to make that shadow another person -- an extension of himself.
When someone finally does appear, the story takes off into some different territory and loses some of its punch. When we see her, Inger Stevens is appropriately dressed in black and looks like she's just about lost her mind. She could well be in a state of extended mourning. Seeing another human should cause relief, but the movie has other melodramatic intentions, and from here on, it begins to fail.
In most stories about people finding each other after a global catastrophe there's a sense of madness just underneath a facade of happy anxiety. After all, when you think you're the only person left alive and you see someone else, you're wary but equally overjoyed. MacDougall is good in focusing on this aspect -- he at first makes us see Stevens' feet as she follows Belafonte (though their appearance is too quick to make me believe Belafonte did not hear her behind him). It's when they begin interacting and she chooses to dress in suburban white and act as if nothing had happened that I felt the seams of credibility burst. Adding another male character -- Mel Ferrer's -- is good, but bad, because now it creates the basis of a possible conflict. The fact that Stevens and race is the source of conflict is practically unbelievable considering what they've gone through, but race was an issue in 1959. This of course is the problem: old patterns of conflict have to emerge in order to maintain a sense of familiarity, as in Stephen King's "The Stand." It's why these types of movies are good in concept, but fail in execution. THE WORLD, THE FLESH, AND THE DEVIL would have fit as an episode of "The Twilight Zone", but not as a 90 minute feature-length film.
To watch it now only highlights how far we've come as a society. Sometimes we forget, immersed in our day-to-day troubles, just how much better times are now. We have evolved, as a society, but to those of us who are part of that evolution, the changes happen so slowly we don't notice them. At least, not until something like this movie is revisited to see how things WERE.
The story follows the fortunes of a young black engineer after a mysterious apocalyptic event destroys all trace of humanity from the Earth. Man's works are left behind, but of man himself there is, for the early part of the film, only Belafonte's character.
With typical stoicism born of the post-war era, Belafonte first digs himself free of a collapsed mine, then sets about making a home for himself in the empty city. Bereft of companionship, his future looks a lonely one as he slowly pieces together what has happened to the world.
Of course, he soon discovers a white female survivor and this is where the film really starts to shine. The interplay between the two is electric and both Belafonte and Stevens give dynamic performances as they struggle to come to terms with their growing attraction to one another. Belafonte is particularly adept at getting across how the mindset of non-whites led them to believe they were inferior.
Given the time the film was made this in itself would be enough to make a fantastic film, but it's not enough for this movie. After a period where Belafonte and Steven's characters seem to have come to some sort of "truce" between themselves, they discover a third survivor - a white male.
Needless to say, the character dynamic undergoes a dramatic change, with Ferrer's white character trying to dominate the trio and taking an interest in Steven's female character.
All the usual love-triangle difficulties arise, made all the more intense because of the inter-racial aspect. As tensions mount, the two males eventually come to blows over the female regardless of her wishes in the matter.
So, what we have are inter-racials tensions along with (for the time) typical male misogyny.
The film is essentially this dynamic played out to an extreme. However, it is in fact the final scenes of the movie that really set it apart as something phenomenal.
Having fought and nearly killed each other, it seems set that the men will go their separate ways and the woman must choose one of them. However, with a truly unique twist, she chooses them both and the final scene is the three of them walking off into the distance, hand in hand whilst over the top of the scene appear the words "The beginning.." It may not sound like much, but for 1959 this was a truly epic scene to put on celluloid. The notion that a white woman might have relations with a black man let alone (as hinted strongly here) that there might be a threesome going on, was something that just wasn't done.
For those who didn't grow up with any of that racial or sexist nonsense, it might seem bizarre or unrealistic that such things were a big deal. And for you, the best equivalent I could cite in today's world as a similar taboo might involve a brother/sister incest relationship. It really was that big a deal back then.
Films like this are often forgotten, or ignored on channel playlists because of their age or content. This is a massive shame, because there are some truly magnificent films out there that are fading almost into myth because of a lack of exposure.
It is films like this that show us just how far we've come in fifty odd years. But it is also films like this that show us that, even back then, there were those who hoped for change and expressed that hope and desire through the medium of film.
If you like a good, tense character drama, then you'll not find many better than this one.
Even given the fact that this is science fiction, and we always have to suspend some disbelief to enjoy such a tale, there are too many plot contrivances that don't make sense. Stevens' character has been following Belafonte around for a couple of weeks before she dares to make a connection to him--highly unlikely. MEL FERRER turns up on a river barge having been all over the world looking for survivors and found none--apparently not even bodies. And yet we see pigeons on the streets of New York City early in the morning but a complete lack of corpses anywhere. Nevertheless, stores and wiring and electricity are almost untouched and there's even running water in the kitchen.
But what keeps the film on a lower level is the talent involved. HARRY BELAFONTE gives the most genuine performance here, but that's not saying much when you have the wooden MEL FERRER and the overly emotional INGER STEVENS tossing off lines as though they were doing a run through rehearsal for the senior play. Belafonte is fortunate in that his character seems the most logical and inventive of the three, while the plot gets sillier the moment the men start arguing over the attractive blonde and some racial remarks are made.
It doesn't help that the dialog is often childish or stilted and that Ranald MacDougall's screenplay and direction is unable to bring these characters alive and give them any depth. After the realistic first half-hour, the rest of the film is a letdown.
Miklos Rozsa's score is fittingly as low-key as the scenes showing a deserted city, but it has to be one of his least memorable works.
Belafonte digs his way out, discovers what happened, and makes his way to Manhattan, where he finds nothing but emptiness. He fixes up a block of New York with a generator and lights but is despondent and lonely -- until blond, sexy Inger Stevens shows up. They're both delighted. He fixes her a flat in the same building as his and they get to know one another, well enough so that Belfonte, a black man, confesses that he loves her but, what with his race, they live in two different worlds. She says nothing about love but, just as he's good with things, she's practical about relationships. "We're the only two people left alive." Not quite true. Mel Ferrer stumbles into their little nest. They nurse him back to health and it complicates the tentative arrangement. He's not a bad guy, but as Stevens describes it, Belafonte can't make up his mind about what he wants, while Ferrer knows exactly what he wants and will stop at almost nothing to get it.
It's all believable enough. There are three people left alive on earth. The woman worries about which man she should marry, and the two men plan to murder each other.
Belafonte, although confused and embittered, is clearly the more noble of the two. He puts an end to the shooting match by throwing away his rifle and announcing that he's leaving for parts unknown. Stevens talks him out of it and her pale white hand takes his strong dark hand. Then they hurry to catch up with Ferrer and he takes Stevens' other hand.
What -- asks the discerning viewer -- is going to happen next? Don't ask. Why SHOULD you ask? The writers certainly didn't. Maybe polyandry.
It's an interesting movie until the appearance of Mel Ferrer, who is a nuisance. Inger Stevens is visibly horny and at one point, when Ferrer forces her into a dark niche in the row of skyscrapers, she says, "Do you want to kiss me? Make love to me? Go ahead." Until then we've seen nothing but her growing affection for Belafonte.
It must have been a shocker in 1959. The South still had "white" and "colored" drinking fountains and johns. If you wanted a hamburger you didn't sit at the counter; you waited at the take-out window. This was considered normal.
There are some effective scenes, such as Belafonte first wandering the deserted streets of the city and shouting up at the stone cliffs that hover over him, the thousand windows like dead eyes, and Belafonte screaming, "I know you're there! I can feel you watching me!" And again, when Stevens gaily asks Belafonte to cut her wavy blond hair. He doesn't look forward to the intimacy of the act and begins cutting carelessly, increasingly angry, blowing the fluffs of severed golden hair from the back of his hand. She finally tells him he's hurting her and he throws the scissors down and walks off.
But the musical score is by Miklos Rozsa and practically duplicates all his other scores. His work was dramatic but dull. The performances are alright. Belafonte is handsome and convincing, and Ferrer is an effective catalyst. Inger Stevens does fine in the role of a woman whose part is full of blanks. It's the script that's the problem. I understood what Belafonte was about, and I had a general idea of what Ferrer was up to, but Stevens was impossible to figure out, aside from her terrifying thought that she might never be married. (Is that from the 1950s or what?) The climax is a cop out. Nothing is resolved. All such endings -- in which the writers have entirely run out of ideas except "let's not offend anyone who might buy a ticket to the movie" -- should be abjured, banished from the screen, sent to the lesser moons of Jupiter.
What happened to all the people killed by radiation? They wouldn't just vanish. Evacuating everyone from a huge city like New York seems impractical. Where would they all travel to?
Why would a guy who's got experience with mines and power supplies not even think to try the tap water in an apartment vs. lugging water upstairs? People would automatically at least turn a spigot once.
Why are so many guns tossed away in temporary fits of disgust? In a future like that, people would horde guns for self defense against the dark forces. Or at least hunting, if any animals survived.
Last but not least, why would that same (black) guy, in proximity to an extremely shapely white woman, make race such an issue with almost nobody else around to care? Good grief, man, just go for it!
I found this film too tunnel-visioned to be realistic, given the circumstances of its setting. It forced a narrow, racial concern into a world where it no longer applied. But it's well made enough to be worth watching. The ambiguous ending is also interesting, though its practical implications are risqué.
After this excellent beginning and some nice scenes of Belafonte in the city establishing a life for himself, the film goes rapidly downhill. He meets Inger Stevens and, later, Mel Ferrer arrives and the film degenerates into symbols and messages, racial and otherwise. What had been an interesting story about a man coping with a bizarre and terrifying situation is turned into silly philosophizing.
This movie is worth seeing for the beginning, but once that is over you are advised to turn it off and make up your own ending.
It's a pity that such a fun premise was sufficiently abused by the writer(s) into becoming just another race-driven message movie. The racial conflict is forced rather than realistic. Plot-devices are used in such a way as to force the three humans to jump into arguments, fights (even a fairly stupid gun-fight at the end) at the drop of a hat.
Firstly, Inger Stevens hiding from Belafonte; that was just plain dumb. Only a retarded or mentally disturbed (and I mean BEFORE the cataclysm) person would not rush into the arms of the first human that they see after weeks of total solitude. Her later behaviour shows that Stevens is a normal woman (i.e. no paranoid schizophrenia or something of that nature) hence her initial hiding made absolutely zero sense from a psychological standpoint. The rationale, that she "wasn't sure" (or whatever she said) doesn't wash. Belafonte may have been confused/upset that she hid for so long, but the amount of anger he displays toward her - and so quickly - is totally exaggerated when taking into consideration how frantically and persistently he had searched for any other survivors beforehand. He is far too unforgiving for a man in his position.
Many, further, strangely illogical scenes, for example Belafonte getting extremely upset while cutting her hair. He is supposed to be upset by the racial remark, but his reaction is over-the-top. To cut a long story short, the two constantly bicker, there is constant tension there, as if they had lived together for decades. This simply doesn't work, given the fact they're the only people in New York! That's a typical example of writers trying to introduce "drama" and "conflict" into a movie, at any price, even at the expense of logic.
What happens next is Ferrer's arrival. Again, Ferrer, instead of being thrilled to find more people, only thinks about having sex with Inger, IMMEDIATELY throwing a hateful eye at Belafonte. The truth is that, in this hypothetical apocalyptic scenario, two men and a woman would probably get along terrifically - and would share the woman sexually. After all, in such a totally new world, so many of society's conventions would get thrown overboard.
TWTFATD has its highlights in the first half-hour, with great shots of deserted streets. Inger Stevens is beautiful, which certainly helps, and Belafonte is sufficiently charismatic to hold the movie together.
For a more intelligent psychological approach to Armageddon, watch "The Quiet Earth".
I wonder how little US people knows about the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 1945 bombings. What did they know about 1954 Bikini "Operation Castle", thermonuclear bombs test.
Anyway the screenplay is brutally absurd. Starting from the newspapers the man finds in the mine's bureau. The aftermath of the atomic war is: people vanished and streets a little dirtier than usual.
How could filmmakers imagine an important target like New York hit by intercontinental missiles which make people disappear but leave all buildings intact and all those brand new cars stuck in the streets: where have the people gone? Where are the corpses?
Tell a story of abduction by the aliens: it's more believable than this.