Director Ranald MacDougall’s 1959 classic thriller is a film that presents a much more shocking and jarring vision of the end of the world than most contemporary apocalyptic horror films and dramas. And that’s mainly because if you’ve never seen this you’d never know that most of the elements from this were stolen by most horror films. Including Will Smith’s version of “I Am Legend,” and even “Night of the Living Dead” to some extent. The last man on Earth is an African American man forced to travel by his wits alone. He is forced to deal with cabin fever and loneliness, tries to contact other human life by radio waiting for signals everyday, and yes, he even props up mannequins around the city to engage in conversations with which not only indicate his sense of isolation but his fading sanity.
“The World, The Flesh and the Devil” begins with Harry Belafonte who plays Ralph, a cave miner and inspector who becomes the victim of a cave-in in Pennsylvania. Stuck and without any ability to contact anyone he is forced to wait for help and rely on his patience when diggers begin trying to save him. After a few days of talking to himself and singing aloud to drown out his fright, he realizes that the digging has stopped and any communication with the outside world has become pointless. After finding a way to escape the cave, he emerges basically unscathed to discover that most of the world’s population has completely disappeared and now he is quite possibly the last man on Earth. One of MacDougall’s key shots where our protagonist Ralph is walking down the street in the middle of the heart of New York is quite haunting and shocking when you view it in a wide scope and in black and white.
Match that with the thick racial commentary that proceeds it and this film can not be matched by Smith’s star power. It’s something to play on the fears of nuclear war but when you take an African American man and make him the key hero in a piece about the end of the world, it sets us up for some interesting debating and provoking insight in to what his role is in this new society and how he feels coming from a subservient role, now being able to dominate this new society and live it on his own terms. As with most movies of this ilk, we sit back and watch this character deal with the death of the world’s population by walking around and perusing different stores and facing the fact that there simply isn’t anyone around to talk to or deal with.
He spends most of his time in his condo setting up a lush illusion for himself and takes to setting up the power and desperately looking for someone else to contact him in hopes of finding a partner in this new world. Belafonte is powerful as this lone stranger who must come to grips with his solitary existence. That is until he comes across Sarah one day while relaxing. What becomes the struggle for one man to adjust soon turns in to a sort of Adam and Eve tale where this man garners the company of desperate Sarah, a lonely blonde woman who is obviously uneasy around this black man. As their relationship blossoms, MacDougall doesn’t turn this so much in to a romance tale than a take on the roles of races in the new society. In spite of their affection and blooming passion toward one another, do they act on their emotions or stick to the societal norms they were once conditioned to believe they must adhere to?
Sarah is this woman who is apparently used to her role as an upper class woman who has to take in to consideration the feelings of a man she’d normally never look toward passing on the street. Inger Stevens is fantastic as this lovely yet narrow minded stranger forced to shed her sensibilities just to gain some sense of companionship. MacDougall then introduces yet another character named Benson (the utterly mesmerizing Mel Ferrer) who appears on a boat one day and nursed back to health. The conflict becomes ever more tense and gripping when the friendship and admiration between the trio grows in to a deadly rivalry where Ralph must fight for his equality and ignore his emotions for Sarah once Benson decides to make a play for her feelings and engage her in a romance.
The tone becomes ever more gripping once Benson becomes psychotic and while the climax is a bit on the nose, there is a great sense of a new dawn approaching that could mean the start of a new race, and the end of an old world mentality still considered a foreign concept in the early sixties. Most of the film is indeed pegged in the science fiction genre, but what starts out as one man in a whole world of emptiness becomes a struggle for survival between three people with different approaches toward this new partnership where the white man and the white woman must decide if this black man is their friend or their enemy. For something of an understated masterpiece of the apocalyptic sub-genre, “The World, The Flesh and the Devil” deserves much acclaim and respect.