We all know about the big Hollywood names that started their careers with Roger Corman; however, we hear mostly about the actors and directors. Academy Award-winning screenwriter Robert Towne (Chinatown, 1975) also got his start with Corman by writing Last Woman on Earth (1960.) I’ll be darned if his screenplay doesn’t make this low-LOW budget science fiction film a cut or two above the rest.
Towne also acted in it (as Edward Wain) as a cost-saving measure when funds were depleted transporting the crew and other actors to Puerto Rico to shoot the movie. The less said about his acting, the better. We’ll get further with praising the movie if we stick to the script. As for the directing, I didn’t necessarily discover anything of note; however, in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies, Phil Hardy praises Corman’s...
...almost ritualistic, directorial style which makes resonant even the corniest of images…
Hardy also calls Last Woman on Earth “a fascinating minimalist film.” What fascinates me about it is how it takes a potentially salacious situation (refer to the poster, which reflects the movie in broad strokes, not in the style of its execution) and treats it intelligently and with care. In more precise terms, Hardy says:
The cliched romantic triangle that follows as the men struggle for possession of Jones-Moreland and the future is treated allegorically, rather than melodramatically…
So, we have three people that rise to the surface after scuba diving to discover that something happened to the air while they were below and everyone has died, from the captain of their boat to the little girl who lies across a curb on the street. It seems to have been a temporary event; they must continue using their oxygen tanks until the atmosphere returns to normal.
When they decide to head to a house on the tip of the island, Last Woman on Earth focuses on the drama more than the sci-fi. Harold Gern (Antony Carbone) wants to rebuild and becomes immediately obsessed with making a plan to do it. His attorney, Martin Joyce (Towne/Wain), prefers to keep all the talk about the end of the world to a minimum. In the middle is the titular “last woman” and Harold’s wife, Evelyn Gern (Betsy Jones-Moreland.)
Towne weaves her dissatisfaction with her marriage into the plot long before the trio goes scuba-diving. When they are the last three survivors on Earth, I expected a love triangle was going to form, but I wasn’t sure how it would be treated. It’s first mentioned by Harold as he unexpectedly reminds Martin that Eve belongs to him, then proudly announces he’s going to visit her in the bedroom.
Martin hasn’t necessarily expressed interest in Eve at this point, but it makes us wonder… there are human beings with physical needs that will have to be met. How satisfied can Martin be hiding behind rocks on the beach for the rest of his life while he takes care of those needs by himself? Of course, his feelings change during the movie’s 71-minute running time and he’s soon offering Eve a chance to run away.
With no discussion of how they could share her, or enter into some other kind of three-way relationship, the drama evolves into action with car chases, fist-fighting, and the ultimate demise of one of the characters. That’s one approach. For another, you might try The World, the Flesh & the Devil (1959.) Last Woman on Earth doesn’t aspire to the level of that one, but that it aspires to, and achieves, what it does, is remarkable.
Written by Robert Towne
Directed by Roger Corman
Starring Betsy Jones-Moreland, Antony Carbone, Robert Towne
RT 71 min.
Released Aug. 5, 1960
Home Video Public Domain, DVD (Alpha Video)
Phil Hardy, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies
1986, Minneapolis, MN. Woodbury Press