Cast & Crew
In Pennsylvania, a black mining engineer Ralph Burton, is trapped in a cave-in for five days when the tunnel he is inspecting collapses. When sounds of rescue work cease, Ralph, in a rage that he is being left to die, digs until he reaches a ladder and climbs out. He finds the mine deserted, then sees newspaper headlines reading, "U.N. Retaliates for Use of Atomic Poison" and "Millions Flee from Cities! End of the World." In the deserted town, Ralph hotwires a car, then drives to New York City, but finds the George Washington Bridge and Lincoln Tunnel clogged with empty cars. At a shipyard, Ralph finds a motorboat, which he navigates to the city docks. Ralph's shouts through empty streets bring only echoes, and at a vacant church, he cries in anguish. At a radio transmitting station, he listens to a recording of a broadcast in which he learns that a war started when a rogue nation began using radioactive isotopes to poison the world. Ralph fears that he may be the only person left alive in the world, but after he surveys his domain from the top of the Empire State Building, a white woman, Sarah Crandall, surreptitiously follows him to an apartment building he uses as his new home. Over the next few weeks, Sarah watches unnoticed as Ralph fixes up the building. He acquires two mannequins, whom he names "Snodgrass" and "Betsy," and talks to them. With a generator and a truck engine, Ralph lights the street lamps on the block on which he lives. When, in a fit of pique, he throws "Snodgrass" from a balcony to the pavement below, Sarah, thinking Ralph has jumped, screams. He confronts her and she explains she survived the catastrophe by taking refuge in a decompression chamber. As time goes on, the two become friends, but when Sarah suggests she move into his building, he says facetiously that people might talk. Ralph, who spends much time rescuing books from the library, advises Sarah to stay busy also. She explodes, saying she is "free, white and 21" and will do as she pleases. Upset at the remark, Ralph is further irritated when she talks about love and marriage. He tells her not to push him, then reminds her that he is "colored," a "Negro," "nigra," or "nigger," depending on who is speaking, and that in normal circumstances she would not know him because of his race. She breaks down in tears, but a few days later, Ralph brings her a diamond from Harry Winston and a newspaper headline he has printed proclaiming her birthday. That night, he plays doorman, maitre d', waiter and singer at a club to celebrate Sarah's birthday, but when she asks him to sit with her, he says he is not permitted to sit with customers and refuses her request to dance. Replying that she has pride also, she walks out. Later, Sarah calls Ralph to tell him that she has seen a boat in the East River. On it they find Benson Thacker, arriving from the Southern hemisphere in a state of exhaustion. Once Ben recovers, following a week of care from Ralph, he gets the impression that Ralph is deliberately leaving him and Sarah together. Ben thanks Ralph for the clear field regarding Sarah, but Ralph, who dislikes Ben for his condescending attitude, says that while he will not get in his way, he also will not get out of it. Peeved at Ralph, Sarah tells Ben he can kiss or make love to her, and they kiss, but she breaks away and drives off. Two weeks later, Sarah brings Ralph flowers. Ralph admits that he loves her, but when she confides that Ben has asked her to move in with him, Ralph stoically calls Ben a good man. Angry about Ralph's complacency, Sarah invites Ben to her apartment, but when he crudely suggests they have sex, Sarah declines. Unable to decide how she feels about either man, Sarah surmises she should go away alone, but Ben, saying he will make the decision for her, goes to Ralph's apartment with a gun and orders him to move on. Ralph refuses, and as he goes to meet Sarah outside the building, Ben shoots at him with a rifle from above. Ralph takes a rifle from a gun store, and throughout the night, they chase each other through the city, exchanging gunfire. At daybreak, as they reach the United Nations Building, Ralph looks up and sees an antiwar inscription written on the building. He then disposes of his gun, and after Ben follows suit, Sarah finds them. Ralph is about to leave them, saying he has work to do saving whatever he can, when she asks him not to go and puts out her hand, and he takes it. She then calls out to Ben, who takes her other hand, and the three walk together.
William A. Horning
Harold F. Kress
Harold J. Marzorati
Sol C. Siegel
The World, the Flesh and the Devil
1959 was a peak year for Harry Belafonte. Not only did he give a historic concert performance at Carnegie Hall, which yielded one of his greatest albums, "Belafonte at Carnegie Hall," but he also played leading roles in two films, Odds Against Tomorrow and The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, both of which were independent films financed by his own company, Harbel Productions. Unfortunately, as this was the pre-Civil Rights era, Belafonte was restricted in how his character interacted with white women on the screen. He had already complained publicly about his previous film, Island in the Sun (1957), in which his on-screen romance with Joan Fontaine was denied any kissing scenes. Even though he was a co-producer on The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, the problem persisted in the depiction of the chaste relationship between Belafonte and Inger Stevens and was a chief criticism of the film by the more liberal critics. "Not only do I agree," said Belafonte (in the Arnold Shaw biography, Belafonte),"but I said as much to Sol Siegel [co-producer] while we were making the film. And the protests of Inger Stevens and Mel Ferrer were even stronger than mine. But it didn't do any good. They had a wonderful basis for a film there, but it didn't happen." Obviously, Hollywood wasn't ready to test the waters with intimate scenes of an interracial romance. As it was, The World, the Flesh, and the Devil was boycotted by some theatres in the South and in one case a showing in Georgia was halted because of erupting racial tensions in the audience.
Yet, the irony of all this is that Belafonte's scenes with Inger Stevens in The World, the Flesh, and the Devil are more sexually charged because of their restricted physical interaction. The scene where Stevens orders Belafonte to cut her hair might as well be a metaphor for a first and awkward attempt at lovemaking. And their inability to connect always leads back to the big taboo with Stevens saying, "I know what you are if you're trying to remind me," and Belafonte shouting, "If you're squeamish about words, I'm colored..." Unfortunately, instead of addressing the bigger theme of nuclear annihilation and its aftermath the focus of the film becomes the dilemma facing Stevens - does she choose the handsome, honorable, completely self-sufficient Belafonte or Ferrer's cunning, egotistical male chauvinist? There's really no contest [SPOILER ALERT] but co-scenarist/director Ranald MacDougall gives us an open ending; the trio, hands linked, walk together toward an uncertain future as the "The Beginning" appears on the screen. Before we get to that point, however, there's plenty of risible dialogue to savor such as Ferrer's remark, "We have a problem. There's two of us and one of her," which prompts Stevens to say, "Why don't you flip a coin?" Or the inevitable scene where Ferrer threatens Stevens with rape, "I could force you. No one around to care if you scream. All the boy scouts out of town."
There's no denying that the sexual competition over Stevens gives the second half of The World, the Flesh, and the Devil a blunt, melodramatic fascination but it's the first half of the film which is genuinely haunting and memorable. Beautifully photographed in black and white Cinemascope by Harold J. Marzorati, the scenes of Belafonte wandering the streets of a deserted New York City, dwarfed by skyscrapers, convey a sense of overpowering isolation and loneliness. Belafonte is also at his best in solo scenes where he sets up his apartment in the city, figuring out a way to rig electrical lines and populating his pad with mannequins for company, one of whom he nicknames Snodgrass. Curiously enough, Snodgrass appears to function as a reminder of Ralph's racial oppression - "always smiling, nobody could be that happy" - and ends up in free fall from the balcony to the street below. Other images linger as well; Belafonte shadow boxing on a nighttime street and an amusing sequence where he performs a guitar ballad as he admires his electric train set.
While the box office potential of The World, the Flesh, and the Devil was decidedly modest, it did generate a number of positive reviews including this comment from The N.Y. Herald Tribune, "Enthralling...Unlike routine fantasies of this sort, it does not rest on imaginative images of destruction, although shots of a wind-blown empty city are awesome enough, but keeps to an essentially psychological exploration of the impact of loneliness, luxury for the asking, and the problem of survival." Almost all of the reviews agreed that the film's first half was the strongest with The New York Times stating that "the fancy begins to crumble and the weird spell begins to break when the screenplay calls for the arrival of another man." Time magazine, however, seemed to pinpoint the film's main weakness with this assessment: "A passionately sincere, pictorially brilliant, monumentally silly example of how people who are obsessed with the race question tend to see everything in Black and White...the audience is asked to believe that when most of humanity has been wiped out by a cloud of radioactive sodium, the three people who have managed to save their skins will spend most of their time worrying about the color of them." Yet, what's easy to forget now is the simple fact that race was a major issue for American moviegoers in 1959 and, sad to say, but racial fears and prejudices haven't changed that much since then. Interestingly enough, The World, the Flesh, and the Devil would later inspire an unofficial remake from New Zealand entitled The Quiet Earth (1985), a post-apocalyptic drama where three survivors (two men, one woman) of a malfunctioning science project learn to get along despite racial and personal differences.
Producers: George Englund, Sol C. Siegel, Harry Belafonte (uncredited)
Director: Ranald MacDougall
Screenplay: Ranald MacDougall, based on the novel The Purple Cloud by M.P. Shiel & the story "End of the World" by Ferdinand Reyher
Cinematography: Harold J. Marzorati
Editing: Harold F. Kress
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Art Direction: Paul Groesse, William A. Horning
Cast: Harry Belafonte (Ralph Burton), Inger Stevens (Sarah Crandall), Mel Ferrer (Benson Thacker).
by Jeff Stafford
The World, the Flesh and the Devil
To film the striking images of a deserted New York City, the cast and crew had to start filming at dawn in order to capture the city before the early morning rush. This gave them no more than an hour or two per day in which to film the sequence.
The working title of this film was The End of the World. The film ends with the words "The Beginning" on the screen. According to press material written by director Randall MacDougall, the 1901 novel on which the film was loosley based, The Purple Cloud, by Matthew Phipps Shiel, was purchased by a major studio in 1927. MacDougall called the novel "one of the first to concern itself with man's growing capacity to utterly destroy himself." According to various news items, Paramount planned to make the film in 1940 under the title The Last Man in the World and was negotiating for René Clair to direct and Conrad Veidt to star.
Following the atomic bombings in Japan in August 1945, a number of producers were preparing films to deal with the subject of the end of civilization, including Frank Capra, M-G-M and Hal Wallis. When Paramount, in December 1945, decided to revive the Shiel project, using a script by James Hilton based on the novel, Los Angeles Examiner commented, "Stand back, boys! Now it's Paramount throwing another bomb into the atomic story ring." At that time, Zoltan Korda was to direct and Ray Milland to star. In August 1950, Los Angeles Times announced that George Pal planned to make a film for Paramount based on Hilton's script. According to MacDougall, Sol Siegel purchased the rights to the novel in 1956 and decided to marry concerns about racial tensions to those in the novel about survivors in a world nearly destroyed. (The three characters in the original novel were Caucasians.) According to MacDougall, "Siegel felt strongly, as do many historians, that these two problems are interrelated and that we must solve both in order to solve either." Siegel formed an alliance with Harry Belafonte's new company, Harbel Productions, in 1957 to produce the film.
MacDougall explained the concept of the film, as worked out between himself, Siegel and producer George Englund, as that of "the spirit of man is indomitable, unconquerable and impervious to either the threat, or actuality of the ultimate destruction." He wrote that the film "makes no pretense of solving the problems of man" and described the climax as "a reaffirmation of the truism that force solves nothing." In a letter published in Los Angeles Mirror-News, following the release of the film, independent producer Arch Oboler related that he heard that an "indecisive ending" was forced on MacDougall. Oboler also pointed out that "certain aspects" of this film "are somewhat similar" to his 1951 film Five, which also had as a character an African-American survivor of a nuclear holocaust (see entry above for more information on that film).
Time stated that the ending "was reshot after a big front-office foofaraw." A November 1958 New York Times article on the film related that location shooting had taken place in New York a year earlier, and studio work in Hollywood was completed in June 1958, but a decision was made to return to New York to reshoot some of the material. MacDougall stated at that time, "Some of the stuff we had for our ending as well as the footage in other parts of the film done in Hollywood was not so powerful and authentic as the material we got here [in New York] last year. So, we decided to try again." In a Los Angeles Examiner article, MacDougall commented, "The precise ending must take place in the minds of those who see the picture. It was not our purpose in making the picture to tell people what to think. They must think for themselves." According to a biography of Belafonte, he and co-stars, Inger Stevens and Mel Ferrer were not satisfied with the treatment of racial issues in the film and complained to Siegel during production.
Reviews generally admired the quality of the production, but criticized the ending and the handling of the racial conflicts. Los Angeles Mirror-News wrote that the film "soon bogs down in a standardized Hollywood plot of racial issues and the old triangle." Time complained that "the grand drama of humanity's survival collapses into an irrelevant wrangle about racial discrimination that has no...real significance." Saturday Review (of Literature) wondered, concerning the ending, "Are we to assume that some sort of polygamous arrangement has been worked out, or will the three henceforth lead entirely sexless lives, thus dooming both white and colored races to extinction? No answer being given, we must assume that the color question was injected into the story more as a gimmick than out of any real seriousness."