Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: In anticipation of the dystopian Aussie crime drama The Rover, check out these other post-apocalyptic visions.
The World, The Flesh And The Devil (1959)
Humanity all but vanishes, leaving behind only its stifling taboos, in The World, The Flesh And The Devil, an incisive social allegory in the guise of post-apocalyptic science fiction. Remarkably progressive for its time, the film begins in striking last-man-on-Earth mode, following a miner, Ralph (Harry Belafonte), who digs himself out of a collapsed tunnel, only to discover that pretty much the entirety of the species has been eradicated in the radioactive fallout of World War III. Combining elements from a novel by M.P. Shiel and a short story by Ferdinand Reyher, writer-director Ranald MacDougall amplifies the deafening loneliness, shooting his star in long shots that emphasize his isolation and strewing the empty streets of New York with rubble and rubbish. (MacDougall had to film these scenes at the crack of dawn, in order to capture the city at its most desolate.) It’s a haunting half hour, more effective than any of the three features made from I Am Legend—possibly because there are no pasty mutants to distract from the sheer solitude.
Belafonte, then at the height of his screen stardom, brings both desperation and humor to this opening passage, and one can imagine a whole movie built from his sad attempts to construct the illusion of civilization. Eventually, however, Ralph discovers that he isn’t the last person alive, and that’s when The World, The Flesh And The Devil gets really interesting. First implicitly, and then explicitly, the film becomes the story of two people—one black, the other white—whose potential happiness is complicated by social rules, even though the society that made them has ceased to exist. “People might talk,” Ralph tells fellow survivor Sarah (Inger Stevens) when she proposes moving into his building, though there no other people to talk. Later, Sarah laments that she’ll never get married, while the dream man in front of her promises to find her a husband eventually. It wouldn’t be fair to say where the film goes next, except to note that the subsequent melodrama could have been ghost-scripted by Douglas Sirk. As it becomes clear, the devil of the title has more to do with stigma than stigmata. And like cockroaches and Twinkies, it’s resilient enough to withstand a mushroom cloud.
Availability: The World, The Flesh And The Devil is available on DVD, and to rent or purchase from the major digital services.