Besides wanting to watch it ever since I read its synopsis, I was encouraged when TCM host Ben Mankiewicz spoke highly of The World, The Flesh and The Devil in its introduction prior to a recent airing. Sadly, I was disappointed on both fronts. While there are interesting elements of the “last man on earth” setting, I didn’t connect with the social commentary it is supposed to contain.
The screenplay by Academy Award-nominated writer, Ranald MacDougall (Mildred Pierce, 1945), is based on The Purple Cloud, a 1901 novel by M.P. Shiel. The IMDb synopsis sells it for me, and the first part of The World, The Flesh and the Devil lives up to its promise:
A miner trapped in a cave-in resurfaces, and upon discovering mankind has been wiped out in a nuclear holocaust, sets out to find other survivors.
The miner, Ralph Burton (Harry Belafonte) is an industrious genius, able to create his own infrastructure in the vacant apartment building he eventually inhabits in New York City. He carries a Geiger counter with him and uses clever methods when attempting to locate anyone else that may be alive. Longing for companionship, he befriends some mannequins; that is, until one’s constant smile irritates him and he heaves it over the balcony.
With the crash of the mannequin on the street comes the scream of a woman. Ralph is not alone! Living in her apartment down the street is Sarah Crandall (Inger Stevens), who was in a decompression chamber with two other people when the apocalypse arrived. Where are the other two now? Well, they exited the chamber two days too early… Sarah seems to have arrived in answer to the desperate question Ralph just asked the mannequin:
Do you know what it means to be sick in the heart with loneliness?
The power of the movie then begins to dissipate. I supposed the “social commentary” I mentioned is about race. Ralph is black; Sarah is white. Is that why he refuses to live with her, even though he later admits he loves her? Who is left to show concern about a mixed marriage? Why would Ralph be the person that won’t allow it? The conflict is extremely subtle and may have been clearer in 1959. I’m happy to say that it’s not as clear in 2020.
The World, the Flesh and the Devil gets even more murky when Benson Thacker (Mel Ferrer) arrives by motorboat. I guess being on the sea at the time protected him from the holocaust. On paper, the three-way relationship among a black man, a white woman, and a white man could be interesting. But the race element disappears in a nuclear cloud and the conflict becomes all about lust.
In his review in The New York Times, Bosley Crowther perfectly and succinctly summarizes what I’m saying:
Social distinctions and mating are considered in the most conventional terms, and a potentially fascinating contemplation of a unique sociological change is discarded in favor of a cliché: two men and a girl on a desert isle.
Also for me, though, Ralph has become unlikable because he’s so incredibly selfish; Sarah has become unlikable because she’s so wishy-washy (and because Stevens is so unconvincing;) and Benson is unlikable from the beginning. His desire for Sarah is so strong that he’ll shoot at Ralph from the building roofs to get him out of the way. Not only is it the end of the world, the only three survivors are despicable people.
In the Variety review, the critic says,
Although overall the film is engrossing, it gets curiously less effective as additional survivors turn up. When Belafonte is entirely alone on the screen for the first one-third of the film, and virtually alone for the first half, the semi-documentary style keeps the film crisp and credible.
I disagree in that I don’t think the entire film is engrossing; however, I agree about the first third. Some moments heartbreakingly elicit feelings of what it might be like to be the only person left alive. In one shot, the camera shoots from the ground and spins around Ralph, looking up toward the skyscrapers towering above him. This is not to mention eerie shots of dead vehicles lining the George Washington Bridge and Lincoln Tunnel.
Movies like The World, The Flesh and the Devil sometimes make me feel like I’m not smart enough to “get it.” I don’t think that’s the case, here, though. That’s especially because of the ending. It’s trite and unearned, like someone waved a magic wand and sprinkled radioactive fairy dust on the vacant streets of Manhattan. The ending doesn’t satisfy, unless you think to yourself that the three of them are getting just what they deserve: each other.
Written by Ranald MacDougall (screen play)
Based on the novel, The Purple Cloud, by M.P. Shiel
Story, The End of the World, buy Ferdinand Reyher
Directed by Sutton Roley
Starring Harry Belafonte, Inger Stevens, Mell Ferrer
RT 95 min.
Released on May 1, 1959
Home Video Warner Archive (Blu-ray)
Varieth Staff, The World, The Flesh and the Devil, Variety
December, 31, 1958
Bosley Crowther, Radioactive City; 'The World, The Flesh and the Devil' Opens, The New York Times
May 21, 1959