blogging by Andrew Wickliffe


The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959, Ranald MacDougall)


The World, the Flesh and the Devil is one of those rare films where even the opening titles are spoilers. Devil is an end-of-the-world picture, all about coal miner Harry Belafonte emerging from a cave-in to discover he’s the last man alive. Except we’ve had the titles, so we know we’re also watching a movie with Inger Stevens and Mel Ferrer. They really should’ve asked SAG for an exception. Or filled the picture with cameos, like Belafonte watches a very special clip from “Bonanza,” and they can get some more names in the credits.

The first act is all Belafonte, starting with the cave-in drama. Devil only runs ninety-five minutes, but they could’ve gotten another four good minutes in montage of Belafonte waiting to be rescued especially since he appears to run out of food at some point. On the other hand, it might’ve just been another Belafonte singing sequence, so maybe not. Director MacDougall often does quite well within constraints—and his suspense finale is spectacular—but he can’t figure out a way to shoehorn in Belafonte’s singing. The sequences are usually charming—Belafonte’s a great lead when he’s the lead—but they’re practically commercial breaks. They could be commercial breaks. He could sing jingles.

What I’m saying is apparently World, the Flesh and the Devil didn’t have enough corporate or brand synergy in 1959, and they should remake it as an ongoing streaming series with integrated commercials and so on.

Or not.

Anyway.

Belafonte comes out of the mine to discover everyone’s gone. He was in the mine five days. The bad guys poisoned the atmosphere, and the nuclear war-obsessed populace all went into their shelters. They came out on the second day. And all got poisoned and evaporated (there’s nary a corpse in Devil, something they really should have addressed). If you stayed in until five days, you survived. Presumably. We never find out Ferrer’s story. Devil tries to be a human drama in a sci-fi setting without much sci-fi, but MacDougall’s approach is to entirely avoid the subject, even when there’s pronounced details. So the film—and its characters—need to pretend they’re not sitting right on the table.

When you’re the last man on Earth, there’s only one place to go: New York City. It makes sense from a movie perspective—Belafonte running through the city’s empty streets provides many a striking visual—but we never find out why Belafonte’s going there. Is he from there? Family? Doesn’t matter. He finds a nice apartment building and some transport and starts setting up the new world, complete with a radio transmitter to broadcast to other survivors.

Like Stevens, who enters the picture in the second act, which is when Devil becomes a very strange race drama. The film was banned in the South, but it certainly seems like the distributors were still hopeful. Stevens and Belafonte are the last people alive. She likes him, likes him, but she’s a young white woman, and he’s a Black man. White supremacy might not exist right now, but add another white person, and it will. Some of it is subtext—Belafonte never really gets to talk about what he’s saying, and Stevens always seems super ignorant—but there are some honest moments in their burgeoning relationship.

And they’re both incredibly sympathetic and likable.

So when Ferrer arrives—the harbinger of the third act—and all of a sudden, there is another white person, and it’s a white man, it’s clear the film’s headed towards some kind of conclusion. It just takes the movie forever to get there, as Ferrer and Belafonte keep avoiding the potential for conflict and instead mope around. Belafonte mopes productively, saving relics of the old world like books and paintings—it’s not even a subplot, just something for Belafonte to be doing as he exits scenes with Ferrer and Stevens. Meanwhile, Ferrer keeps telling Stevens the clock is ticking on when he cares whether or not she’s at all enthusiastic about her consent.

The third act’s suspense finale on the rooftops of New York City almost saves Devil. The movie cops out, but the sequence itself is superb. It’s also where the film’s always admirable, but only sometimes successful matte paintings shine, and editor Harold F. Kress doesn’t have any bad cuts. Devil usually looks fine or better—Harold J. Marzorati’s black and white photography is solid—but either MacDougall didn’t get enough coverage, or Kress’s got no cutting rhythm because sometimes the editing is way too jumpy.

The Miklós Rózsa could be better at times, but it’s not like it breaks anything.

Belafonte’s always good; Stevens’s is usually good (in a tricky role; while she doesn’t consciously acknowledge white supremacy, she does realize she doesn’t like the patriarchy much), and Ferrer’s solid… enough. Ferrer’s successful as far as the part goes, but there’s nothing else to it. The part’s got more subtext than Belafonte’s or Stevens’s, so Ferrer doesn’t have to flex. And he doesn’t.

Devil’s okay. It’s trying too hard to be milquetoast, but it’s far from a failure.


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