Three’s always a crowd!
Ralph Burton isn’t exactly having a good day. First, the mine he’s working in collapses. And when he finally manages to crawl his way out to freedom, he finds himself to be the last man on the face of this earth…
This must be one of the most “ahead of their time” movies ever made! Back in a decade where the Sci-Fi genre almost exclusively existed of cheesy outer space invasion movies and tacky B-monster flicks, “The World, the Flesh and The Devil” brings an emotionally devastating and deeply discomforting portrait of a our big blue marble in a post-apocalyptic setting. Richard Matheson wrote his hugely famous novella “I Am Legend” five years earlier in 1954 already, but this is cinema and also very different & innovating. Matheson‘s tale, which received three major film versions over the years, is primarily a Sci-Fi spectacle with the last man on earth battling against mutant creators or albino vampires, whereas this is merely a socially engaging drama, unafraid to cover taboo topics like interracial rivalry, cultural differences, selfishness and mental collapsing. Quite courageous and ambitious aims for a low-budgeted movie, and I don’t at all intend to claim “The World, the Flesh and the Devil” is a masterpiece or anything, but it’s definitely an intriguing and praiseworthy effort with a reasonable amount of monumental sequences, horridly void locations and great acting.
After being trapped in a collapsed mine for five days, the optimistic (as he keeps serenading) and colored Ralph Burton (Harry Belafonte) gives up hope of being rescued and digs his own way out. To Ralph’s astonishment, there’s not a living soul in sight and even the giant city of New York is godforsaken. Following a reluctant process of accepting his position, Ralph courageously begins to rebuild his own private civilisation with decorated buildings, electricity generators and even mannequin dolls for company. Then Sarah Crandall (Inger Stevens), another and female survivor, appears and the two build up a tight friendship even though Ralph maintains an unnatural distance between them. Several weeks and minor incidents later, a third survivor literally sails onto dry land and, like the ancient expression says, three’s always a crowd. The confident Benson Thacker (Mel Ferrer) clearly intends to make advances on Sarah and sees a threatening competitor in Ralph. Talk about hopelessness, when even the last three survivors can’t get along!
Particularly the first hour of “The World, the Flesh and the Devil” is very solid. The footage of Ralph wandering around the empty streets of NY in despair, or the sequences where he desperately tries to radio-contact others but eventually reverts to talking to plastic dolls, are unimaginably powerful. The romantic tension between him and Sarah as well result in a handful of superb moments, especially since director Ranald MacDougall genuinely generates the impression that they really are the last ones left and thus mankind’s final hope for survival. Unfortunately, but like the title slightly forebodes already, the film eventually becomes too lyric, morally preachy and overly symbolic. The three main (and only) characters gradually alter into walking, talking exemplifications of their values and beliefs. Their behaviour often simply isn’t plausible. I just cannot believe that Ralph would react the way he does to certain situations, regardless of the fact he’s black and presumably lived a life of oppression before the day of the apocalypse.
Speaking of which, apart from the emptiness on city streets, there are very little signs indicating the end of the world. The areas are clean, the buildings are intact and there are no traces of possible mass hysteria (except for masses of abandoned cars on city highways). It is hinted that sodium clouds of dust caused the total annihilation of mankind, but it looks more like all humanity just vaporised into thin air. Shouldn’t there be small piles of ashes and remnants of clothes all over the streets, or something? Obviously, the lack of horrific images and special effects in general are due to budgetary restrictions. Heck, the excessively moralist speeches are probably also meant to divert the attention from typical Sci-Fi scenery and stunt work. The final 15-20 minutes are quite preposterous, I must admit, but if you have a far-ranging sense of humor, you might still appreciate it. There’s actually quite a lot of humor in “The World, the Flesh and the Devil”, albeit it’s often very repressed and dry. All the typical ‘last man on earth’ jokes pass the revue, but they’re quite funny. Like when Ralph rejects Sarah’s proposal of moving in together by saying “the neighbours might talk”.
Good old Harry Belafonte is excellent in one of the only lead performances of his career and literally overpowers his male opponent, veteran and multi-versatile actor Mel Ferrer. Inger Stevens is simply ravishing. It’s a damn shame she committed suicide at the age of 36; barely 11 years after the release of this film. In spite of some defaults “The World, the Flesh and The Devil” is a definite must-see for fans of intelligent Sci-Fi and extra suggested for people who saw and loved all the other entries in the “Last Man on Earth” sub genre.