World, the Flesh and the Devil, TheReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 03/02/14 11:27:43
SCREENED AT THE 2014 BOSTON SCI-FI FILM FESTIVAL: End-of-the-world movies looking to be thoughtful tend to reflect on what could cause such a cataclysm, often making the cynical argument that humanity just won't learn from its mistakes, with the survivors repeating them. There's merit to that, but the approach taken by "The World, the Flesh and the Devil" - using its blank slate to create a tight focus on other parts of society - is just as interesting, with the execution fantastic enough that the movie draws the audience in week before getting to the meat of it.It starts with miner Ralph Burton (Harry Belafonte) inspecting an excavation in Pennsylvania for safety, and being trapped inside by a cave-in. After being seemingly abandoned, he did himself out to find that this event actually protected him from something apocalyptic, and there are no signs of other survivors. He heads to New York City, thinking there are more likely to be other people there, but finds himself alone... At least until Sarah Crandall (Inger Stevens) shows up.
Even though the opening credits suggest that this movie will not be a one-man show, Belafonte gives writer/director Ranald MacDougall such a great performance during the first section of the movie that the audience can be forgiven if they forget. MacDougall himself deserves plenty of credit for what he's putting into place: He's set it up so that the practical issues of how Ralph sets himself up to live in some comfort and how he starts to crack from the quiet and loneliness are each interesting on their own but also feed on each other. It's done so well that when he finally introduces Sarah, it may not quite be surprising, but it's exhilarating and even shocking, upending everything the viewers have settled in for. That it's a damn well-executed entrance, going from the camera peeking around the corner to putting Stevens on screen to having the characters meet at just the right pace to maximize the emotion of every step - is a bonus.
That Ralph is black and Sarah is white goes uncommented-upon initially, but that doesn't mean it's ignored. While in 2014 there's a good chance that this would just be about a studio trying to spread the demographic appeal of the picture around, there's no way to pretend that this is not a big freaking deal in 1959. There's a fascinating tension in how they interact, from how they move into neighboring buildings rather than the same one to how, even with nobody else around to care, Sarah seems more able to openly acknowledge their growing affection. What we now think of as white privilege lurks in the corners until a careless remark forces them to confront it, and how even though Sarah gives no impression of being anything other than progressive and Ralph is very take-charge even before the mine collapses, the prejudices of a dead society still have their pull. It's an often fascinating look at how pervasive unfortunate racial attitudes can be even among good people, and surprisingly level-headed for the intersection between a subgenre and a topic where neither is particularly known for subtlety.
(I'm sort of curious where the casting of Mel Ferrer as a third survivor fits into that. Even with a character name like "Benson Thacker", he's Latino-looking enough that I wonder if contemporary audiences saw him as white or "not black", and how that affected the perception of their interactions.)
With such a small cast, there's no room for a bad performance, and fortunately there isn't one to be found. Harry Belafonte, especially, is terrific; he's kind of theatrical when he's got the whole movie to himself, but what last man on Earth talking mostly to himself wouldn't be? He gives Ralph a well-considered, deliberate edge, like he knows he can't get mentally complacent, but also a big heart. There's a nice chemistry between him and Inger Stevens, a real fondness even if it does occasionally get diverted. She's believably fragile in her youth, but able to build her character's confidence and trust nicely. Ferrer is a late addition, so the audience doesn't get to know Benson quite so well, but he's got a very aggressive charm that fits the character and where the movie winds up going.
Those very final moments of the movie are perhaps a slight disappointment - as much as the rest of the movie is ahead of its time, there seems to be one last step MacDougall can't quite take. The other ninety-three minutes of the ninety-five-minute movie are great, though; despite apparently being a combination of a novel and a short story by two different authors, the story is tight and seldom does anything to boot the audience out of the story. Unlike modern takes on this sort of story, this movie can't spend much time in an empty Times Square or do shots that show the entire city abandoned, but it actually adds something to the story that it's mostly set in working-class neighborhoods, as if this is where Ralph feels most comfortable even with no-one around to disapprove.That's just one of dozens of well-spotted details that make "The World, the Flesh and the Devil" particularly great. It would be a thoughtful, well-acted sci-fi film even if it occasionally got sloppy, but having everything fit together so well makes it something special.
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