The world could come to an end in a lot of ways, but 1950s sci-fi was fond of making it end like a One-Act play. Harry Belafonte’s personal project soon drops the spectre of annihilation to cozy up to a statement about race relations. Despite the fact that his co-star Inger Stevens likely had the courage to take the material way, way farther, the last man and woman on Earth don’t even share a kiss. Can’t offend those distributors in Alabama, by golly. The film’s amazingly realistic vision of NYC abandoned after an atomic gas attack is stunning in HD — the show hasn’t lost its appeal, even if it deserts its second theme in favor of a rifle-toting showdown between Belafonte and Mel Ferrer’s villainous third-wheel survivor.
The World The Flesh and The Devil
Warner Archive Collection
1959 / B&W / 2:35 widescreen / 95 min. / Street Date November 5, 2019 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Harry Belafonte, Inger Stevens, Mel Ferrer.
Cinematography: Harold J. Marzorati
Film Editor: Harold F. Kress
Original Music: Miklos Rozsa
Written by Ranald MacDougall from stories by M.P. Shiel and Ferdinand Reyher
Produced by George Englund
Directed by Ranald MacDougall
The highly successful screenwriter Ranald MacDougall helped Joan Crawford make her career comeback at Warner Bros., and later directed her in Queen Bee. In 1958 he served as both writer and director for independent producer-actor Harry Belafonte’s high-profile MGM project about the end of the world. It’s not clear if the movie was prompted by buzz for Stanley Kramer’s highly publicized On the Beach, but MacDougall’s CinemaScope attraction hit movie screens months before Kramer’s show.
MGM’s promotional materials emphasized the film’s serious theme and the eerie visual spectacle of Harry Belafonte roaming the empty canyons of New York City, apparently the only person left alive in the world. Previously, the few stories dealing with this kind of subject matter had been low budget science fiction thrillers like Target Earth!, and were sold accordingly. The World The Flesh and The Devil was positioned as a class attraction.
The story was suggested by a pulp fiction novel written in 1901 called The Purple Cloud. Pennsylvania mining engineer Ralph Burton (Harry Belafonte) is inspecting some tunnels when a collapse almost buries him alive. Five days later, realizing that rescue efforts have halted, Ralph digs his way out. He finds no people anywhere, and reads newspaper headlines about a cataclysmic disaster — an airborne isotope weapon with a half-life of five days has apparently wiped out humanity. Ralph makes his way to New York City, crossing the Hudson by foot because the bridges and tunnels are jammed with abandoned automobiles. Giving up hope of finding anyone, he moves into a swank apartment and rigs up a power source for his lights.
Just when Ralph is wondering if he’ll be able to adjust to his predicament Sarah Crandall (Inger Stevens) shows up. She’s been following Ralph around, afraid to make contact. Sarah and Ralph are delighted to find each other, but their romance doesn’t get tentative niceties because Ralph has no faith in the future of an interracial relationship. The fact that they appear to be the last two living humans doesn’t alter his thinking. He instead initiates a daily radio broadcast to search for other survivors, claiming that he’ll find an appropriate man for Sarah. The fellow who does arrive in a boat is Benson Thacker (Mel Ferrer), a nice-enough white guy who immediately stakes his claim on The Only Gal in Town. The trio quickly devolves into a lopsided triangle: Ben wants Sarah, Sarah thinks she prefers Ralph, and Ralph refuses to make up his mind. With the world on reboot, should the existing racial traditions/rules/discriminations be kept or abandoned?
Are you interested in end-of-the-world imagery? The World The Flesh and The Devil’s compelling scenes of a modern city completely abandoned have since been repeated ad infinitum, but its novelty in 1959 needs to be kept in mind. For the record, Will Smith’s I Am Legend seems as much a remake of this movie as it is of Richard Matheson’s post-apocalyptic vampire tale. The scenes of Harry Belafonte wandering in the litter-strewn streets of New York are actually more convincing. Less is more — the sight of a pair of buses crashed and abandoned in the middle of an avenue makes an impression equal to reels of CGI effects. Matte paintings augment intriguingly realistic views of Belafonte gazing at the landmarks of lower Manhattan. None of this was easy to film:
In 1997 I was lucky enough to talk to producer Robert H. Justman (Star Trek), who was the assistant director for this film’s New York location scenes. He said that they achieved the six or seven minutes of Belafonte (and later, Stevens and Ferrer) wandering the ’empty’ city by filming in the immediate pre-dawn, for weeks in two sessions that actually took place a year apart. The city allowed them to block off a couple of streets between 4 and 5:30 AM. They’d rush up and down the street distributing trash and ‘abandoned’ vehicles, and get only a couple of minutes of the actors in motion, sometimes only one or two takes. Even then, they’d have to scramble to clean up their mess because city vehicles and impatient early-birds would be waiting for the barriers to come down.
Times Square was a different problem. The police and businesses cooperated, and a CinemaScope-wide view was entirely shut down for a precious three minutes — traffic, pedestrians, giant electric advertising signs, and even traffic signals. Belafonte and the crew had to know exactly what they were doing. It’s harder than it looks: moving vehicles are easily spotted behind Vincent Price in the similar depopulated-city sci-fi epic The Last Man on Earth.
Shots obtainable without stopping traffic were of course less difficult — for ‘up’ angles of Belafonte against tall buildings, just keeping pedestrians a few feet away did the trick. The dialogue scenes with Belafonte and Stevens at street level were filmed on the MGM lot. Matte artist Matthew Yuricich provided skyline shots free of airplanes, birds and smoke and steam from buildings.
The first half of the movie offers a wealth of imaginative detail about what life might be like for a Robinson Crusoe marooned in a major metropolis. Ralph listens to the final tapes of the dying radio broadcasters(an excellent audio montage), and cries silently. He’s soon acting oddly, as if he might go mad. Belafonte’s suppressed loneliness and distress in these scenes is completely convincing. The saddest shot might be Ralph strolling down an empty canyon in the Big Apple, pulling a child’s red wagon behind hm. The films Last Woman on Earth, The Last Man on Earth, Omega Man and The Quiet Earth cannot help but recycle ideas and incidents from The World The Flesh and The Devil.
Do viewers assume that Ralph is staying clear of buildings to avoid the corpses that would logically be inside? As only a few days have been passed since the mass kill-off, this inconsistency can only be chalked up as a big question mark. MacDougall’s conveniently self-neutralizing atomic gas is a definite screenwriter’s crutch, a fanciful nuclear threat as convenient as the poetic ‘Great Whatsit’ from A.I. Bezzerides’ Kiss Me Deadly.
But the atomic theme is apparently just an attention-getting shortcut for what is really an artsy allegory, an undisguised message picture about civil rights. This approach to race relations seems tame now but was certainly controversial in 1959, when a number of state laws prohibited mixing the races in any way whatsoever. Belafonte was and still is a major civil rights proponent in show business. He hit this issue hard in both of the pictures he produced in 1959. The other was Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow, a crime caper that goes awry due to racial prejudice.
Belafonte was far more outspoken about race inequality than the ‘nice’ Sidney Poitier, yet his film aims to be persuasive, not confrontational. While Sarah seems eager to become Ralph’s lover, it is the black character that resists, nursing a grudge that could be described as reverse-racist. Strangely, Ralph Burton’s underlying hostility plays into Harry Belafonte’s image as a talented but ‘difficult’ black artist with a chip on his shoulder. A clipping from a 1959 Motion Picture Daily about an incident in Atlanta, Georgia should make it clear that Belafonte had every reason to be furious, not just angry. (open in new window to enlarge) →
The initially easygoing Ben Thacker claims that he resents Ralph only because he’s younger. This is akin to making a movie about vicious wolves, in which a sheep turns out to be the agressive party. Could these evasions have been included for commercial purposes, to try to keep The World The Flesh and The Devil from being banned from movie screens in the South? Or would the 1959 Production Code simply shut down the movie, if the sexual, religious, and racial issues raised by the story were more directly addressed?
Viewers tend to remember the film’s first half more clearly, before the narrative becomes a forced love-hate triangle. Belafonte and Stevens are excellent, with Stevens particularly good at expressing an ambivalent attitude toward the future and her status as a desired female, presumably the hope of the human race. In hindsight, Inger Stevens always seemed ready for more daring, challenging roles that never came along — she might have been a sensation in the 1970s. Ralph’s inability to handle the idea of intimacy with Sarah is implied in a scene where she talks him into cutting her hair. Sarah’s clear intention is to provoke Ralph; the scene is a substitute for a sex encounter. She urges him on, but Ralph only grows irritated. He can’t forget Subject ‘A’: and grasps an opportunity to start an argument when she lets slip the stinging phrase, “free, white and 21.”
Nowadays, all of this seems quaint. That doesn’t mean that a screenwriter of 2019 would untangle the film’s across-purposes messages. A remake might have Sarah discover that Ralph doesn’t want her because he’s gay. I correspond with plenty of online jokers who could suggest far kinkier possibilities, or at least enough for a decent Saturday Night Live skit.
Liberal director-actor Mel Ferrer, who performed with distinction in the inspired race-themed Lost Boundaries, just isn’t very interesting as the third wheel in this dour love triangle. The script wants Ben Thacker to be an okay guy, but he comes across as a wishy-washy villain, too much of a jerk to deserve Sarah, and too gutless to follow through with his threat to kill Ralph. We just wish Ben would go away, or maybe find that Audrey Hepburn is alive, and live happily ever after.
Sci-fi fans consider The World The Flesh and The Devil as a refinement of two earlier End Of The World movies. 1951’s groundbreaking Five has a similar ‘Adam & Eve’ love triangle plot, with a passive fellow and an arrogant European competing for the attention of the leading lady (ironically, Susan Douglas of Lost Boundaries). Roger Corman replayed the same basic idea, adding a monster and making the Biblical context overt, in his micro-budgeted Day the World Ended.
Was adding a church-friendly aspect a condition of getting iffy thematic content past the Production Code Office? Like a great deal of Hollywood sci-fi, The World The Flesh and The Devil dresses up its cautious liberalism with Biblical overtones. The final text title (‘The Beginning’) reminds us of sci-fi thrillers of more humble means. All that’s needed is a Jack H. Harris question-mark. Ralph lingers in a church at one point. When Ben stalks him through Manhattan with a high-powered rifle, Ralph pauses meaningfully before a United Nations peace plaque, which Miklos Rozsa’s dynamic score heralds as if it were Moses’ stone tablets. We don’t mind a high-toned ‘author’s message’ once in a while, but subtler filmmakers find ways to avoid spelling them out in giant marble letters.
The visually stunning finish is unfortunately also a cowardly dodge, that fails to resolve the story or do justice to its progressive theme. The trio’s situation just doesn’t seem all that difficult: with so few people left alive, you’d think three consenting adults could arrange an experimental compromise with the ‘social niceties’ of the past that were irrelevant everywhere except places like Atlanta, Georgia. Frankly, the obvious solution is that they should skip hand-in-hand to the library and look up the phrase ménage à trois.
Movie fans were eager for spooky, thought-provoking entertainment in 1959, the year that saw the debut of The Twilight Zone. Only six months later, The World The Flesh and The Devil would be eclipsed by the much bigger On The Beach. That even more glamorous, star-studded tale of atomic doom doesn’t switch emphasis mid-film.
Director MacDougall clearly defers to his cameraman and films many dialogue scenes from an uninteresting middle distance. Street encounters look flat; the coal mine that traps Ralph seems like a cavern. Other angles are far more interesting, suggesting that MacDougall (or his 2nd unit director, or his cameraman) had a real eye for composition. The visuals veer between impressive shots of the Statue of Liberty surrounded by empty water, and more mundane settings back in Culver City. When Sarah and Ben go on a picnic, they sit down before what a quaint stone bridge on the old back lot, that shows up in every other costume picture MGM made in the late 1940s.
When Ralph rings a church bell we see a series of jump cuts between a number of lion statues. Director MacDougall is indulging an in-joke with famous 3-lion cutting sequence from Sergei Eisenstein’s silent Battleship Potemkin. The sculptures appear to ‘animate,’ becoming one lion waking and roaring in response. In 1959, only hardcore foreign film fans would likely have made the connection. Woody Allen would later spoof this kind of copycat noodling, when a Potemkin- like baby buggy bounces down some stone steps in his farce Bananas. I’m told there’s also a joke in Love and Death in which, when Woody is going to bed with a woman, we cut to similar lion statues ‘rising’ — and then one looking exhausted and worn out. For the record, Harry Belafonte’s Ralph also witnesses a baby buggy rolling down the sidewalk on its own, blown by the wind and rain.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of The World The Flesh and The Devil gives this show an attractive HD boost. In the higher resolution the detail and atmosphere of those authentic Manhattan scenes is breathtaking — no CGI could achieve the same spooky feeling as the real thing: this is the center of American civilization, some of the most famous streets in the world… where are all the people?
Great composers love it when the ‘musical canvas’ they must score has passages free of dialogue. Miklos Rozsa’s orchestral work dominates the film’s many street-wandering passages, and the ‘most dangerous game’ finale. The compositions revive the mood and drive of some of his better film noir scores, like Double Indemnity. The pounding cadence at the finale allows Rozsa to mark almost every one of director MacDougal’s ‘significant’ cuts with a strong note.
Blu-ray collectors are picky — we wish that studio-distributed titles like The World The Flesh and The Devil could be given the in-depth extras lavished on movies licensed and released by small, boutique Blu-ray outfits. This year we’re concerned that the major studios may simply withhold their libraries from hard media disc, to better promote an all-streaming universe of corporate convenience. The WAC’s presentation comes with an original trailer, which strikes all the right notes — mystery, spectacle, star power — stumbling only once to shoehorn in a bit of Belafonte singing a calypso song! I remember seeing this trailer when the movie was new, at age seven: I understood just enough to know that a) it looked incredibly exciting; and b) no way was I going to be allowed to see such an adult picture. Better to stay mum and try to slip through the parental gauntlet to see The Mysterians and The Mummy.
Thanks to Gary Teetzel, whose research uncovered the sobering clipping reporting the film’s racist reception in Georgia. He forwards a link to a fascinating American Cinematographer article about filming in a ‘deserted’ New York City; we learn that the camera crew were told that the story’s calamity began with a ‘purple cloud.’ Also, Gary points us to a Modern Screen article about Inger Stevens, and a Film Bulletin article about promotional publicity in Ohio that tied-in to a real Civil Defense Test. Radio spots were written and performed by writer-director Ranald MacDougall and his wife — actress Nanette Fabray. Does anyone happen to have a set of 45 rpm 1959 publicity records for The World The Flesh and The Devil?
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The World The Flesh and The Devil
Movie: Very Good
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: October 31, 2019
Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson