The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959)
The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959) starts out fine, before it goes awry. Its most basic flaws are its awkward, clumsy attempts to make a social statements - about race and humanity - which are unearned by the depth of its exploration. However, given the fact that the movie was released years before the Civil Rights Act was signed by President Johnson in 1964 - something which is (ironically and sadly) still in the news today (e.g. during this year’s election cycle), we should probably cut the film-makers some slack for their early effort. It is a shame though that such a tantalizing subject - being the last person(s) on the planet, and the root causes of such a predicament - is so muddled. Though it was clearly intended, the story doesn’t quite succeed in communicating its forewarning message(s) to/about mankind because it’s too narrowly and inadequately (per the censors and/or fears of audience reaction?) focused on racism. The film’s strengths are its depictions of a post apocalyptic world and some of its character’s actions that follow, but the producers’ (Harry Belafonte among them) tunnel vision caused them to give short shrift to the other ‘big picture’ issues.
This movie has to have been one of the first ‘last man on earth’ sci-fi dramas. It precedes the three movies based on Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, and was obviously a model for them since many of the scenes and props are so similar. Mannequins as companions and the use of a short wave radio to contact other survivors are among the staples not previously listed. After being trapped underground for nearly a week, a miner (Belafonte) emerges to find that he’s seemingly the only person left alive on the planet. From Pennsylvania, he makes his way to Manhattan where he finds deserted streets, except for the exit routes - which are clogged with empty automobiles - on the edges of the city. No bodies are to be found anywhere (and the reasons for this are never explained). He enters a radio station which is still running on backup power and learns about the fate of civilization via an audiotape recording: nuclear isotopes were released in the atmosphere, the resulting clouds circled the globe killing everyone within five days but then disappeared without leaving any residual radioactive danger (how convenient). After expressing some grief and anger, this ‘last man’ busies himself by outfitting a penthouse apartment with various amenities including generator electricity (one has to assume that his fossil fuel supply is readily available and limitless) while he rescues various cultural valuables from deteriorating libraries and museums.
Enter a woman (Inger Stevens). She has been watching him without revealing herself until he, frustrated by his loneliness, throws an ever smiling mannequin out of his apartment’s window and she screams, assuming that he’s just committed suicide. Hearing her shriek, he rushes to meet her and they have a rather unbelievable conversation. Initially, she is credibly frightened of him, but then both are rather standoffish given their situation. Over the passage of some time during which he provides her apartment with electricity and installs a telephone between them (what a handy guy he is!), they become platonic friends. Then (unbelievably) it is her - not him - that mentions the possibility of a closer (e.g. sexual) relationship, but it’s him - not her - that declines, citing their differences in race. In a role similar to those that were or would be played by Sidney Poitier, Belafonte plays the noble chaste black man; it is he that enforces the separation between himself and the white woman. This conflict causes their separation. Weeks pass until their reconciliation - a birthday celebration for her - but it’s filled with contradictions: he gives her a gigantic diamond, creates a romantic candle-lit dinner environment complete with a custom record he’d made (in the radio station’s studio?) that includes his singing a love song but then, despite her invitation, he refuses to join her and instead insists on assuming a stereotypical waiter role.
The third act in the drama involves the discovery of another male survivor (Mel Ferrer), who’d been boating for six months (he says that he’s come from the southern hemisphere, but later it’s learned that New York City was his home) presumably in search of others; it’s never explained how he managed to survive the holocaust. The boatman collapses from exhaustion, so Ralph (Belafonte) and Sarah (Stevens) work together to nurse him back to health. Once on his feet, Ben (Ferrer) is direct and unapologetic about his sexual desire for Sarah; he also senses her love for Ralph. But even though Ralph intentionally stays out of the way, doing his best to facilitate the other two’s relationship, Ben comes to view the presence of the all too perfect handyman as a threat. Viewing Ralph as an ‘opponent’ that needs to go away, Ben tries to force a showdown. From here, the drama gets even sillier: a chase that beckons The Most Dangerous Game (1932) etc. is on - with Ben claiming the high ground, shooting his rifle from atop the skyscrapers, while a reluctant (though now armed) Ralph runs below among the streets (firing but a single covering shot). An aimless Ralph comes to the United Nations where he reads this inscribed passage:
THEY SHALL BEAT THEIR SWORDS INTO
PLOWSHARES. AND THEIR SPEARS INTO
PRUNING HOOKS, NATION SHALL NOT LIFT
UP SWORD AGAINST NATION. NEITHER
SHALL THEY LEARN WAR ANY MORE
He then throws down his weapon and confronts Ben, telling him to drop his weapon and saying that "it’s all over" (even though it was Ben that started it). After a brief scuffle, Ben asks why Ralph won’t fight and prepares to shoot him at point blank range but can’t saying "if you were afraid, I could do it" before walking away. Seeing this, Sarah approaches Ralph and finally gets him to take her hand. She then calls to Ben "wait for us" and, after the camera angle changes to a birds-eye view, the (Miklos Rozsa) score’s volume rises as the words THE BEGINNING appear onscreen (before the studio credit page).
The Last Man on Earth (1964) ends similarly, but how it gets there is quite different. This first adaptation of Matheson’s book caused the author to request that his name be withdrawn from the screenplay credits (he receives residuals under the name Logan Swanson). The protagonist is a doctor - Robert Morgan vs. Robert Neville - but it was a worldwide plague that has caused him to become the titled character. At night, Morgan’s home is besieged by slow moving zombies (e.g. killed by the plague, they’ve come back to ‘life’) that want to get him. Besides sleeping during the day, their other vampire-like characteristics include being allergic to garlic and an inability to look at themselves in the mirror; naturally, Morgan kills them during the day by driving wooden stakes through their hearts (before burning their remains). And who plays the Morgan character in this B horror movie? Why Vincent Price, of course! The best this one has to offer - especially when compared to its two bigger budget remakes - is in its conveyance of Morgan’s loneliness (which is done via Price’s voice-over narration) by showing his mundane daily routine 3 years running, and the 30 minute flashback sequence which details how it all happened. Otherwise, it’s hard to disagree with the novelist’s assessment.
© 2008 Turner Classic Movies - this article originally appeared on TCM's official blog