Thursday, May 29, 2014

The World, the Flesh and the Devil

The World, the Flesh and the Devil (Ranald MacDougall, 1959) In Casablanca, "the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world" (according to Richard Blaine).

But in the cautionary tale, The World, the Flesh and the Devil, two's still company, but three is a global conflict.

Ralph Burton (Harry Belafonte), maintenance worker, is deep underground checking on tunnel infrastructure, when he loses communication and is stuck in a collapse. Making his way out, finally, he finds himself alone, with discarded newspapers telling of a nuclear attack ("nuclear poison" is how it is phrased, there's been no thermonuclear explosion, as the cities are intact and cars drive, so it must be a "dirty bomb" or neutron bomb).

Burton secures a car and drives up to the heart of New York and finds it completely abandoned, empty. There aren't even any bodies in the streets or in the cars that jam the bridges—the cities life-lines are clogged. In the familiar streets of New York, it is completely unfamiliar, because the city's essential ingredient is missing: no people. When have you ever seen film of New York when it isn't bristling with people? It's eerie, unsettling and depressing beyond melancholy.

In a film of quite a few fascinating images and concepts, this may be the best part of the film. Burton runs through the streets, shouting half-mad through the caverns of skyscrapers, his words echoing down the streets, trying to rouse survivors.

But none come. New York is devoid of life. He sets up power for a block of apartments and moves into one of them, bringing, in his hunt for food and supplies, mannequins for company, or a semblance of company. He finds a short-wave and, everyday at noon, sends out a signal to anyone, everyone, looking for just one voice to break the silence and the drone of wind that mourns through the skyscraper canyons. He has a routine to keep himself from going mad. He's put himself to use, restoring light and power to his corner of the city. But, power and light can't thank him, and the city is cold, sterile, and alien. A ghost town.
What he doesn't know is that he's being watched in his routine. Sarah Crandall (Inger Stevens, practically beautiful) has also survived the attack, and watches from the shadows and around corners to avoid detection. But, her presence can't be hidden in the stillness for long. A ploy brings her into the light, and the last two people alive in New York become friends. He sets her place up with electricity, they make meals together, but they go their separate ways, meeting again in the morning. If Sarah wants to become close, Ralph doesn't, despite the implications in "if you were the only girl in the world..." He can't get beyond the prejudice he faced before the instant war, and, who knows, there could be a lynch mob on its way. As for Sarah, the implications of the situation are clear, she's (as she puts it) "free, white and 21." capable of making up her own mind.

And besides...for crying out loud, he's Harry Belafonte!

But "free, white, and 21" is a phrase that just stings for Ralph. The "race" thing makes them both a bit neurotic: him, because he keeps Sarah at an emotional distance; Sarah, because she's the only woman in his world, and he keeps her at an emotional distance. They talk, they're kind, they misunderstand, they run away and go to their separate corners. One wonders if Adam and Eve had such a time in the Garden of Eden.

But, into every garden must come a snake. Ralph and Sarah see a tug pull into the harbor and on-board is Ben (Mel Ferrer), who's also "free, white, and 21" but also dehydrated, delirious and near-death. He's been looking for survivors, too. Ralph and Sarah nurse him back to health, but Ralph's neurosis leads him to abandon Sarah, in an attempt to bring her and Ben closer together, which is a fine idea to Ben.
Sarah, on the other hand, is not about to let the alpha males fight over her, and when the antagonism between Ralph and Ben bubbles to the surface, she objects to her role as the "trophy-bride," but that doesn't stop the men from threatening each other, Ben telling Ralph the next time he encounters him, he'll kill him. "What is this? World War Four?" asks an incredulous Ralph. 

Good line, that. Given the circumstances, though, it's entirely accurate, for all they know. Even when the world is reduced to just three people, still nobody can "just get along."

It's in the psychology sub-text, the "race thing" (that is supposed to make Burton noble to '50's audiences, but, now, only makes him look stupid and a little candy-assed) and (really) the third party, who, story-wise, seems like a fifth wheel that keeps TWTF&TD from being an unquestioned classic. A little "Twilight Zone," (particularly the third season premiere "Two" starring Charles Bronson and Elizabeth Montgomery) and a bit of "I Am Legend" (written in 1954), this one might have had some influence in how the filmed versions of that Richard Matheson book look and feel (I'll dig up a hat-trick review of those for tomorrow). 

It's the images of The World, the Flesh and the Devil that are its strength. Even when words fail, they communicate the desperate loneliness, the sadness, and tragedy of the situation in their uncluttered beauty. 
Inger Sevens: 1934-1970 "practically beautiful"

No comments:

Post a Comment