The finest moments of Ranald MacDougall’s 1959 end of the world drama come early on: Ralph Burton (Harry Belafonte) stumbling through the empty streets of New York City, possibly the only survivor of a nuclear event. Dwarfed by the eerily silent monolithic towers, he becomes a miniscule haunted figure. Exploring the vanquished metropolis his confusion soon sours; rage at being abandoned rises in him and MacDougall extracts powerful moments from Belafonte. One is a wordless plea in a church as Ralph confronts the God he turns to in utter moral confusion. Another sees Ralph reduces to poignant, silent tears as he listens in, helpless to respond or deny, radio transmissions from afar as the last systems of communication grind to a halt.
The middle act of the film is less interesting: Ralph and the first survivor he encounters, skittish Sarah (Inger Stevens), establish a tentative approximation of domesticity, living in separate buildings, but spending quality time together as the months unwind. The addition of a wildcard in the form of rundown sailor Ben Thacker (Mel Ferrer) sharply alters the dynamic, but in a somewhat clichéd way: he soon has his eye on Sarah and inevitably seeks to push Ralph out of the equation, even if that means resorting to arms. The fact that he’s also a bigot means we’re never in any doubt about where the moral divide lies.
Belafonte, it must be said, is excellent as Ralph; the stages of emotional turmoil he passes through are believably portrayed. Stevens, however, is clearly the film’s weak link, playing Sarah as a spoilt, stilted schoolmarm whose simplistic evaluation of their predicament is symptomatic of the screenplay’s more general deficiencies. Friction leads to jealousy – more internalised in Ralph’s case – as both men pine for Sarah, though there’s little mystery as to whose composure will crack first.
With a black man and white woman in the leads, it’s somewhat inevitable that racial tensions will be stirred. MacDougall’s adaptation of an M.P. Shiel novel and Ferdinand Reyher story does a reasonable job of dealing with the hypocrisy of our perceptions of one another; these may be contorted by the extraordinary circumstances of this doomsday scenario, yet certain ugly human traits are unable to be tamed.
The difficulty was always going to be how to resolve The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959), and unfortunately, the final scenes are sadly inefficient in dealing maturely with the characters’ simmering conflicts, even if Miklos Rozsa’s magnificently downbeat, world-weary main theme continues to churn in mechanical stride to Ralph’s quest to preserve remnants of a disappeared world. Instead a regrettable compromise is reached, negating the struggle with a ‘safe’ ending and laughable final shot that mocks some of the film’s best moments, echoing as it does evocative overhead viewpoints. From the earlier haunting effect of striking portraits of man’s desolation amidst the city he’s constructed as a testament to progress – to a studio imposed, overly neat interweaving of hands, the film fades out, dragging bogus hopes of human regeneration along with it.