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A very thought provoking movie that was not accepted at the time, but in retrospect, way way ahead of its time. In a racially charged world it put forth the premise that race, in the final analysis, is superficial and meaningless. Once you strip away the layers of conditioning and socialization, you find, at the core, good and evil and the age old struggle as to which will prevail. A simple story, told directly and honestly. On a scale of 1 to 10, its an 11.
This movie will grab your interest and exercise your moral fiber. The setting of the movie is New York City after a catastrophe that eliminates all the people on the planet, except a few. Race, prejudice and pride are but minor subplots in this excellent film. A fair minded and humanitarian black man discovers the true nature of life and friendship in a white woman. A sheltered white woman finds the friendship of a black man who is everything she loves and desires in a lover, but nothing at all like her upbringing would endorse. Suddenly, her psychological paradise is shattered when a third person comes along who threatens to bring back all the old ways of thinking that separated people and cultures throughout generations. Black and white has never been so colorful.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
A well-mounted, ambitious end-of-the-world epic, "The World, the Flesh and
the Devil" thankfully has more going for it than most of the cheapjack
sci-fi prevalent in the 50s, but, alas, it fails to live up to its early,
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.
In the '50s the nuclear holocaust was never far from the popular
imagination. This picture is one of many fictional efforts to show what
might have happened.
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.
Harry Belafonte emerges from a mine after an accident and discovers that the
world is deserted, except for Inger Stevens and Mel Ferrer.
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.
When I was in the 3rd grade I stayed home from school one day sick with the flu and watched this on a local TV station and some scenes from it have stuck with me ever since; I will never forget the sight of Harry Belafonte eating dinner with Inger Stevens and then cleaning up by casually throwing the entire contents of the dinner table out the high rise apartment window and calculating that it would be YEARS before the pile of smashed crockery reached his window; who can explain the eerie fascination of empty cities? This film is one of the first to successfully pull off the effect, setting the standard for what followed: The Omega Man, The Day of The Triffids, 28 Days later and especially The Quiet Earth.
It is a movie at a time when a comfortable 50's America was 'asleep' re: the possibilities of a nuclear war......a sort of 'mass denial'. This movie started a trend re: the nuclear issue and 'the end of the world'; for later on that year (1959) there was "On the Beach", and in the early 60's, there was "Alas Babylon", etc. The movie "The World, the Flesh" and the Devil" was in startling black and white in both the filming and the actors. I was only in the 6th grade, so it made an enormous impact on me. The images of New York City completely EMPTY was shocking and too real to be believed! I was a bit disappointed when it succumbed to a romantic and sexual attraction level --- but now as an adult, I feel that those situations could very well happen as well....and after all , the movie had to make money! I am glad that this movie will be released on April 10, 2006.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The end of the world as we know it and only three people remain. With
an intriguing title, THE WORLD, THE FLESH, AND THE DEVIL is a mostly
forgotten film directed by Ranald MacDougall, screenwriter for some of
Bette Davis and Joan Crawford's vehicles from the late 1940s. It tries
to flesh out a grim apocalyptic story about what would happen if the
world and civilization as we know it came to an abrupt end, and all
that was left, at least so far, was a smattering of humans, each of
them believing that they were the only ones left.
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.
Harry Belafonte is a coal miner trapped in a cave-in. He hears the
drilling of the rescue crew which abruptly stops. Belafonte claws his
own way to the surface and finds everything abandoned. I mean really
abandoned. An Armageddon has occurred when some nation decided to
forego the bomb and all that destruction and just use the radioactive
byproducts. It gets out of control and wipes out everybody.
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?
I've seen many actors play the "last man on earth," and NO ONE ever played the part as believably as Harry Belafonte. There's his reaction when he's listening to those radio messages ; his shouting at the whole world to come back (I'm paraphrasing this) : "Where did you all go? What did I do?" ; his trying to live alone with the mannequins ; singing to himself ; his reaction when he finds out there's someone else ; his line when Mel Ferrer threatens him : "Is this World War IV ?" And Inger Stevens was extremely good in it, including her big argument with him, telling him she can live alone, with its almost funny little faux pas : "I'm free, white and 21." And Mel Ferrer, whose character (if I'm correct) was more arrogant in a GENERAL way than he was a bigot, seemed very right for that part. People have complained about the faulty science and similar things, but to me, those things pale alongside the actors and characters. One science fiction guidebook had a great line about this "last three people on earth" movie : "Well, at least one of them can sing."
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