Thursday, May 07, 2015

THE WORLD, THE FLESH AND THE DEVIL (1959) -
Ranald MacDougall


There's not much good spin you can put on the apocalypse. One would hope that with the End of the World would at least come to end of racial tensions as well. According to 1950's post-nuke drama The World, The Flesh and The Devil, such is not the case. Harry Belafonte plays a mine inspector trapped beneath the sewers when the big blast hits. For a while, he roams the empty streets of NYC and seems to be the only survivor other than a few eerie looking store mannequins. He eventually sets up house in an old radio station where he frequently serenades department store dummies and sends out worthless S.O.S transmissions. For the last man on earth, he doesn't seem too depressed. At least until white debutante Inger Stevens shows up to spoil his good time.


You would think the appearance of a female (any female!) would be cause for Belafonte's celebration. As it turns out, it's mostly a cause for anxiety. But here's the interesting part...it's not Stevens but Belafonte who puts on the romantic brakes. Ever heard the phrase "Not if you were the last man on earth..."? Well, amend that to "You're the last woman on Earth and it's too bad you're white." You get the feeling Belafonte might rather have stuck it out with the lady mannequin just to save himself the grief.

Though they do rapidly develop a trusting companionship, Belafonte's Ralph can't seem to shake the worries of the old world, let himself become too intimate with Stevens. "People will talk," he argues when she asks if she can move in. "What people?" the modern viewer asks. "Get it on already!" we say, though the 1950s viewer probably understands. In the meantime, the two have a lot of pretend lavish meals with salvaged champagne, and Belafonte gives Stevens what may be the most angst-ridden haircut ever captured on film.


Eventually, another "people" does show up in the form of white sailor Mel Ferrer. Here, an otherwise interesting meditation on interracial relationships ripped from societal norms turns into something more commonplace. The two men fight over the woman, and eventually guns are drawn. The ending is more upbeat than you might expect, but I still think Ralph would have been happier with the store mannequin.

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