Quietly influential on many subsequent post-apacalyptic films, Ranald MacDougall's 1959 melodrama, The World, the Flesh and the Devil is a flawed but interesting entry in part II of my April Apocalypse series of P/A favorites. With a cast of only three actors and set mostly in the heart of a deserted New York City, this movie captured my imagination as a youngster and is, in large part, responsible for sending me down the cinematic, post-apocalyptic path in subsequent years. The film focuses primarily on character interaction touching on gender and racial themes but brings some striking visuals to the table early on as well.
The first third of the story belongs exclusively to the character of Ralph Burton, played by calypso singer extraordinaire, Harry Belafonte. Ralph is a good-natured miner/electrician who is doing some underground work one day when a cave-in takes place. Ralph initially hears rescuers digging for him, but the sounds mysteriously cease after a time. Ralph eventually digs himself out but finds everyone has disappeared. This first half hour of the film is easily its visually strongest and most surely paced section. It also establishes Belafonte's character as not only a competent, resourceful guy, but likable, with a good sense of humor. After traveling to New York City and finding it suddenly has a major housing surplus, Ralph sets himself up with some posh digs, and brings home a grinning, business suit-wearing mannequin he dubs Snodgrass for company. After a time, Ralph begins to feel mocked in his solitude by the presence of the ever-smiling dummy and tosses him out the window which serves as a catalyst to meet another character.
Snodgrass facsimiles would show up in later P/A films like The Omega Man, as Charlton Heston's mute, skipper-hat-wearing bust of Caesar, and Castaway, as Tom Hanks' annoying volleyball. Likewise, Bruno Lawrence sets up an entire faux audience for himself in The Quiet Earth. There are also several other aspects of this film that would be repeated in subsequent movies like Dawn of the Dead, I Am Legend and The Quiet Earth. First and foremost, the interracial nature of the last survivors and the oft occurring love triangle can be seen in numerous P/A movies after The World, the Flesh and the Devil. It's easy to understand why, the thematic and dramatic tension fostered by these elements were just so ripe for exploration particularly in the socially evolving 60's and 70's.
In the second act of the film, the character of Sarah Crandall, played by Inger Stevens, is introduced. Sarah has been watching Ralph from afar, but has been to fearful to approach him. When they ultimately meet, they form a friendship that Sarah in a subtle fashion, tries to forge into something more. Ralph is resistant to a more intimate relationship as illustrated in the awkward haircutting scene (a skilled beautician, Ralph is anything but). This is where I really start having problems with the script in regards to character behavior. Having been born a year after the film was initially released, I certainly understand the interracial taboos of its time, however, seeing that Ralph and Sarah are likely the only survivors on the eastern seaboard, who cares if they get down to business? Thematically, it smacks of gutlessness on the part of either the screenwriter or studio not to have these characters at least on their way to consummating their burgeoning romantic relationship. It's not like it would be unprecedented. In George R. Stewart's 1949 P/A novel, Earth Abides, the main character of Isherwood Williams discovers his dusky, last-woman-on-earth love interest is in fact black, and quite logically laughs at his own 'what-will-the-neighbors-say' initial reaction. And Earth Abides was adapted to radio ten years prior to The World, the Flesh and the Devil. Speculative fiction has always been a great place to disguise and discuss progressive social messages and the fact that the filmmakers shied away from even the slightest controversial elements really disappoints.
In the midst of Ralph and Sarah's odd, non-intimacy, the final act of the film kicks in with the introduction of Mel Ferrer's character, Benson Thacker (I was kind of surprised the writers didn't go with Whitman Masterson as a name). Ferrer's character is the biggest, most glaring flaw of the film and makes very little sense as written. Benson is taken in and nursed back to health by the two characters upon arriving in New York after six months on his own. Immediately after recovering, he begins moving in on Sarah. Even though Ralph saved Benson's life and "clears the way" for Benson to start a relationship with Sarah, Benson still has a problem with Ralph! Is it bigotry? No, the characters explicitly establish that color is not an issue. So what is going on? Again, I'm going to blame the people behind the film for lacking the intestinal fortitude to make Ferrer's character either a racist or some other kind of repugnant antagonist. It seemed like they were trying to play Benson as some kind of temporary bad guy which served to confuse more than anything else. But the character does an about face more than once in the film for reasons unknown. I suppose the writers could also have gone for a polyandrous solution to the issue, but being the 50's, I understand this was really out of the question. Instead, there is a completely non-sensicle climax and ending which only serves to frustrate.
But despite the characters' sometimes erratic, inexplicable and illogical behavior in the suspect script writing, there are elements I do love about the film. As I said, the early visual images of an abandoned New York are superbly eerie. I thought I spotted a matte painting or two, but if so, they were so well rendered, I couldn't distinguish them from the actual city shots. There was a stylistic (or budgetary) choice made by someone not to show moldering corpses laying around, and despite their illogical absence, it actually adds to the film's chilling ambience. The pacing of the movie is steady without a lot of wasted time. We get into the story literally seconds after the movie begins with the cave-in and aborted rescue of Ralph and it rarely falters from there on. Harry Belafonte even manages to seamlessly slip in a few songs, a couple when he's alone, one recorded for the Sarah character's birthday, that are quite enjoyable. The three actors are all good looking and charismatic and do as good a job as they can with pretty murkily written characters. Finally, the black and white film is put to perfect use in the bleak P/A setting.
There is one other problem I haven't touched on which is the intrusive, BIG, dramatic soundtrack by Miklós Rózsa. A great composer who has certainly done some inventive and iconic work, Rózsa overplays it with grand, over the top, melodramatic stuff which underlines scenes that needed little, if any, accompaniment or highlighting. The era can't be blamed for his choices as he did some nice subtle soundtracks decades earlier, but he seemed to be stuck in Ben Hur mode here.
Although it's a far from perfect film, in the end, it is quite entertaining and surely paced with an influence on subsequent P/A films that is obvious to see.