FROM THE ARCHIVES: The World, the Flesh and the Devil
Reviewed by Robert Cashill
Produced by George Englund; written and directed by Ranald MacDougall; based on the novel The Purple Cloud by M.P. Shiel and the short story “End of the World” by Ferdinand Reyher; cinematography by Harold Marzorati; art direction by Paul Groesse and William A. Horning; edited by Harold F. Kress; costume design by Kitty Mager; music by Miklós Rózsa; starring Harry Belafonte, Inger Stevens, and Mel Ferrer. B&W, 95 min., 1959. A Warner Archive release.
As the Ice-Age-hits-the-Big Apple saga The Day After Tomorrow (2004) stormed into theaters, I pitched to Salon a mock-celebratory piece called, “It’s OK to Kill New Yorkers Again,” expressing relief that Hollywood had lifted its embargo on Manhattan mayhem following 9/11. At the movies no city shatters quite so excitingly or poetically or poignantly as New York, be it from manmade or natural or monster-fueled catastrophes, and I took the resumption of such destruction as a sign of normalcy returning. Less convinced, Salon curtly passed on my proposal.
But if it had gotten the go-ahead, I surely would have mentioned The World, the Flesh and the Devil, now available in a crisp CinemaScope transfer from the Warner Archive. I don’t think there’s any look more attractive than wide-screen B&W, and the movie gives us an eyeful into the void, when “atomic poison” spread by the discharge of an airborne isotope weapon has wiped out mankind. Headlines from the last newspapers printed tell us that the radioactive dust was rendered harmless after five days, about the time it takes Ralph (Harry Belafonte), a trapped miner, to clamber out of a shaft in Pennsylvania. Realizing the gravity of his situation, Ralph drives a car out of an empty dealership and heads to New York, hoping to find other survivors. There is, however, only desolation on the streets; the world did not end with a bang, but with a florid Miklós Rózsa score. (The location shoots were held at dawn, and the eerily convincing illusion of a derelict Manhattan is supported by some matte paintings.)
Coproduced by its socially conscious star, The World beat Stanley Kramer’s apocalyptic On the Beach into theaters by several months. Kramer’s film has a lot of hand-wringing over how the superpowers got us into this fix; MacDougall, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Mildred Pierce (1945) and the writer-director of the later Joan Crawford vehicle Queen Bee (1955), pretty much dispenses with the politics to zero in on the issue of interracial sex, which had Belafonte and Joan Fontaine hot and bothered in Island in the Sun (1957). Temperatures rise in “The Most Unusual Story Ever Told!,” as the poster art and trailer (included on the disc) put it, as Ralph, who had installed two mannequins as companions in his high-rise aerie, encounters Sarah (Inger Stevens). Their first meeting doesn’t go too well—“Don’t touch me!,” she hisses, her blondeness accentuated by the black outfit she’s wearing. But it’s just one of many misunderstandings the two are forced to endure. In the depeopled Manhattan of I Am Legend (2007) pesky zombies get between Will Smith and Alicia Braga, who are haunted by lost loves; standing in the way of Ralph and Sarah, who have no backstories, are mores and the no less formidable Production Code.
These constraints aside, the two don’t make it any easier on each other. Afraid of his own impulses, Ralph insists that Sarah live in her own swanky apartment building, rides herd on their friendship, and constantly throws his race in her face, going so far as to fix her a nice birthday dinner at a fancy restaurant, then joking (with an edge in his voice) that he “isn’t permitted to sit with the customers.” For her part Sarah, who announces (to Ralph’s irritation) that she’s “free, white, and 21,” is anything but, and frets that she’ll never marry and live “a normal life.”
Into their uneasy relationship sails another survivor, Ben (Mel Ferrer), who after a few niceties wastes no time getting to the heart of the matter with Ralph—“There’s two of us and one of her and what are we going to do about it?” Ralph, who by this point probably pines for the simpler days when he sang calypso songs to “Snodgrass” the dummy, acquiesces, and tries to bring the two together. Asserting herself a bit, Sarah balks, telling Ben, “He doesn’t know what he wants and you don’t think of anything but what you want and no one asks what I want.” (Not that she hadn’t tried to seduce him in a moment of confusion, or has volunteered anything on her own.) Ben may be the privileged white jerk of the piece, one who instantly forgets his dead wife and kids when the opportunity to repopulate the earth with Sarah arises, but he’s correct about Ralph’s smothering nobility and its effect on the trio. “You’ll always be making me look bad…always looking and laughing and scheming,” he snarls at Ralph.
His solution—handing Ralph a high-powered rifle and the two of them shooting it out in Times Square and Herald Square—isn’t the best, yet something has to give as the three try to move past a history of social conditioning. After the inspiring intervention of another landmark (the United Nations building) the movie ends not with “The End” but a title card announcing “The Beginning,” following a final clasp of hands and a rapprochement. An easier sit than On the Beach, respectably acted and with flashes of humor (Ralph “does the dishes” by throwing them out the window, drawing on a limitless resupply) The World, the Flesh and the Devil is the good twin to the sulfurous noir Odds Against Tomorrow, which Belafonte’s production company had also made that year. “The Beginning,” though, of what? More bickering and impasse, I suspect. If only the world had ended in, say, 1968, when the Civil Rights Act had passed, women were speaking up, and the Production Code had ended, then Ralph and Sarah might have had a chance at something other than friendship.
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Robert Cashill, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, is a Cineaste Associate and the Film Editor of Popdose.com.
Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.