THE WORLD, THE FLESH AND THE DEVIL, which I never heard of until I picked up the Warner Archive dvd box abandoned sideways on top of the Post-Apocalypse section at Scarecrow Video, is an early take on the LAST MAN ON EARTH type of concept. It’s from 1959, making it the earliest one I know of, and it’s based on a book other than I Am Legend. Actually it’s apparently based on two things, The Purple Cloud, a 1901 novel by M.P. Shiel (H.G. Wells was apparently a fan!) that sounds like it has very little in common with the movie other than a last-man type concept, and a story called “End of the World” by Ferdinand Reyher (which I can’t find much information on).
Harry Belafonte plays Ralph Burton, an inspector who gets trapped alone in a collapsed mine. He’s down there a long time and goes stir crazy talking and singing to a radio that never talks back (he assumes it’s broken). Eventually he gives up on anyone rescuing him but is luckily able to dig his own way out of the rubble. (Shoulda tried that before, I guess.)
When he gets to the surface he’s kinda pissed that there’s no welcoming party. In fact, there is no one in New York City, at least anywhere he looks. He finds newspapers indicating that the city was evacuated because of “atomic poisoning.” And he thought getting trapped underground would be the worst thing to happen to him this month.
I think how much time passes while he explores is up to interpretation, but it seemed to me like he was alone for about 10 minutes before he was climbing into a store window and hotwiring a brand new Cadillac convertible. But I mean, he made the right decision. Civilization was not returning any time soon.
Like other Quiet Earthers, notably Will Smith’s Robert Neville in I AM LEGEND, Ralph gets so lonely he sets up mannequins that he names and has conversations with. Unlike Neville he doesn’t have any vampires or even escaped zoo animals to worry about, and thank God this was before the invention of SHREK so he doesn’t have to worry about becoming obsessed with that movie and memorizing it, one of the most tragic things that happens to Neville. Ralph’s only dangers are loneliness and lack of utilities. He stays in a nice apartment, wears nice suits, lives it up in a way that’s too hard to do if you gotta be ready to fight vampires all the time.
Also, since it’s Belafonte he sings a couple songs to himself and plays guitar. He was a big time pop star at that time, it was three years after his big album Calypso (with the Banana Boat song), and that helped him to get bigger movie roles. That made me think what if Elvis had done this role. It would be a different world if Elvis had a last man on earth movie on his filmography. This woulda fell between KING CREOLE and G.I. BLUES.
But The King couldn’t have done this role as well as Belafonte, because it ends up being important that Ralph is black. When he finally meets another person it’s Inger Stevens, a white woman. She’s scared of him at first but they get along somewhat and help each other and stuff. Eventually she points out that it would be easier if they stayed in the same building and he says no because “people would talk.” A funny line, but he’s not laughing. Here they are, by all indications the only two human beings left on earth, and they’re still worried about this useless race thing.
Eventually they find a third survivor, Mel Ferrer as the excellently named Benson Thacker, who thinks he automatically gets the girl because they’re both white. (Ferrer’s dad was Cuban, but this character is a total white dude.) Don’t worry, “I have nothing against Negroes,” he explains helpfully. It’s actually kinda subtle, it shows how somebody can believe they’re not a racist while clearly not taking someone seriously as a person because of their race. He’s not just jealous, he’s smarmily laughing at the very idea of Ralph being with her. But that’s ridiculous, Ralph is a total catch, in this world or the last one. He’s a working man but he loves jazz, he can sing, he’s a romantic (setting up an elaborate dinner for her birthday, though he casts himself as the maitr’d and refuses to upgrade himself to her date, even when she asks), he’s serious enough to monitor the radios every day but goofy enough to name his mannequin “Snodgrass” and have a feud with him over his facial expression.
Okay, so he’s a little crazy, but of the two men left on earth he’s clearly the coolest. Meanwhile she doesn’t put up with them talking about her like they’re fighting over the last piece of pizza.
This movie is daring for its time. It takes the POV of the black protagonist, it has the white woman pushing for a relationship with him, it has her get a lecture about the ol’ white privelege, and it comes so close to a bold ending when *SPOILER* she seems to choose Ralph and it you would think ends on a closeup of a black hand and a white hand holding each other. But no, the shot continues and they catch up with the white guy and they all hold hands. I guess they’re just friends. Booooo.
Well, wait. Unless that’s supposed to signify a PAINT YOUR WAGON threesome type deal, in which case yes, it was ahead of its time.
The empty New York scenery is cool. There are matte shots and still photos but also I’m pretty sure there are shots where they had to clean out a block or more for shooting.
As far as quiet earth movies go it’s not the most thorough. I couldn’t figure out why he didn’t try to travel out of the city to find other survivors. But it’s cool because without monsters to fight or a problem to solve he gets to focus on living. It’s sad that race gets in the way even in this world, and the black and white is good for this since it makes Ferrer and Belafonte look pretty similar. I liked this one.