Directed by Ranald MacDougall
Written by Ranald MacDougall
Starring Harry Belfonte, Inger Stevens, and Mel Ferrer
Sigmund Freud was a famous proponent for the subconscious and imagery of dreams – he might not have been the first to subscribe to the idea, but he’s the only one most people know about, so he might as well be first. Of course, being a proponent of symbols and the subconscious does not mean he thought everything was symbolic or a result of the subconscious – that reading just stands to reason. After all, if everything is a symbol then nothing is a symbol. Anyway, to put it the way Freud was purported to say himself: sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
So, right now you’re probably asking yourself what the hell this has to do with a Harry Belafonte vehicle from the 1950s?
Well, in another movie, one character giving a haircut would just be a haircut, and there is nothing more to it than somebody having long hair they want dealt with. But in this movie, when the intimacy of the haircut involves a white woman and a black man in pre-civil rights America, the haircut is more than a haircut. Much more. It’s a symbol for racial understanding, for breaking down barriers, and…
And sex. Awkward, necessary, delightful sex.
And if there is any confusion as to whether it’s about sex or not, just listen to the semi-orgasmic response to the haircut throughout. And witness the tentativity of the one giving the haircut, acting as if innocence and virginity have been lost. Sure, somewhere else the haircut would be nothing special, but here, it’s everything.
In this way, The World, The Flesh, and The Devil fits in to the world of Alfred Hitchcock movies, where trains going into tunnels in North by Northwest stood in for representing heterosexual sex, and William Wyler films, where spear throwing between Ben-Hur and Masala in Ben–Hur stood in for a more taboo form of sex.
And curiously, in having this discussion about the symbolism of sex we’ve somehow elevated The World, The Flesh, and The Devil into a realm it was never meant for. Which is the whole point of the series in first place.
What’s it about?
Ralph (Harry Belafonte) is an engineer in a Pennsylvania coal mine. Lucky for him, at about the exact moment a nuclear war breaks out, he winds up trapped in the mine. Turns out the war is so deadly that by the time he digs himself out, everybody is dead and gone. Hoping to find other survivors, Ralph heads off to New York City where, after a while, he meets a white woman, Sarah, (Inger Stevens) – she survived by locking herself in a pressure chamber. Being the only two people left on earth – or so they think – pushes Ralph and Sarah to form the sort of attachment that was just not done between a white woman and a black man in 1959. Eventually, of course, a third man, Ben (Mel Ferrer) arrives to put some disharmony to their situation.
Despite the presence of A-movie elements in this film – star Harry Belafonte, the use of the widescreen format, big-time composer Miklos Rozsa, and a decent, but relatively economical budget of $1.5 million – The World, The Flesh, and The Devil is a B-movie. Or, it has a B-movie sensibility, in both the good, and bad, ways.
The good is that it is experimental, or at least has an experimental streak. Say what you will about Belafonte being an actor best described as ‘adequate’ – he’s no Sidney Poitier – or complain about the script being merely pedestrian, the film does take the somewhat-unusual risk in spending the first third of it’s runtime on just Belafonte.
And what I mean by that is not merely that he’s the focus – he’s all there is. Until Inger Stevens arrives nearly 30 minutes in, we only see Belafonte. And really, when Stevens shows up – also an adequate actor – she doesn’t actually participate in the film right away. She’s more a shadowy figure, watching him and trying to make sense of what he is.
This sort of hard focus on Belafonte alone is unusual in studio films, something more reserved for films like The Last Man On Earth, where there isn’t the same kind of money on the line. And, honestly, where they couldn’t put up that money even if they wanted.
But more than taking a risk by having a single actor carry the first third of the film is its B-movie sensibility means it doesn’t have to shy away from the racial issues that arise when a white woman and a black man are clearly romantically interested in one another. Sure, the movie takes them on in a mostly shallow, surface-level way, but at least it doesn’t shy away from the obvious subtext in the story. For the white woman, it presents her assessment of the issue in the way you’d expect a mediocre white woman to react when she hasn’t been on the receiving end of a lifetime of denigration, which is to assume the racial issues should be no big deal for the black man. If they don’t bother her, why should they bother him? Especially at the end of the world, where there isn’t anybody else around to give a shit? But the black man has surely felt the threat of mob violence at some point in his past and even at the end of it all struggles with the reality that under normal circumstances it wouldn’t take but a change of heart from this woman to turn him from a romantic partner into the ill-fated Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird, lynched because a white woman said so. It’s easy for her to toss off a statement like, “I’m free, white and 21 – I can do whatever I want,” but it’ll never be easy for him, under any circumstances.
Of course, while the film might have a B-movie sensibility, that doesn’t extend so far as to actually letting the characters overtly fuck. This isn’t exactly the fault of the film – in 1959 no movie had their characters overtly fuck. Not even when those characters were a plain old white man and white woman, and especially not when those character were a black man and a white woman.
Yet, in a roundabout way they completely fuck. After all, that haircut Ralph gives Sarah during the film – discussed earlier – cannot possibly be just a haircut. After all, Ralph is nervous and tentative about it in the way somebody might be with a new lover and is clearly affected by it emotionally. And Sarah is so low-key orgasmic during it there’s no mistaking what really just happened. But for the sake of argument, let’s say this was not a metaphor for sex, that this haircut was simply a haircut. Even then, there is something intensely intimate in this exchange that had to be unsettling for some viewers at the time.
Unfortunately, the problem with any film that’s direct and shallow is that its direct and shallow. That it doesn’t engage on the issues on any deep level, and really has nothing to say. And when it says anything, it comes across heavy-handed. This is very much a film operating in the ‘tell’ not ‘show’ mode, which has to be a function of a film dealing with ideas beyond its financial means. Of course, it may also be a function of bad writing.
And, because this has a B-movie sensibility, it cannot be content to rest on its philosophical ambitions. No, it has to shoehorn a murderous love-triangle onto things, of the newly arrived white man, Ben (Mel Ferrer) suddenly determined to take the white woman away from the black man. The only way it departs from the expected outcome – the death of one or more of the three – is when nobody dies and they all simply shrug and go home.
How’d They Manage That?
Despite the movie petering out in what amounts to a shoulder shrug, The World, The Flesh, and The Devil does have two quick shots/scenes near the end that were pretty amazing to consider, at least in terms of the logistics to pull off.
For much of the run time, The World, The Flesh, and The Devil papers over its budget limitations with screen magic. For instance, when Ralph arrives in New York and is greeted by the George Washington Bridge and the Lincoln Tunnel jammed with cars, he does not simply go through them anyway, because the movie surely did not have the resources to do those shots for real, and it’s very tough to believably climb into and through a matte paining. So, he goes around, across the water and onto some bland dock.
In other ways the film used smaller tricks to cover its limitations. To effectively show a city devoid of life – and sound – it used creative framing of the image to human impositions, and frequently shoots silent and dubs in the appropriate sounds later to make it seem deserted.
But the two shots at the end, one of Ralph outside a deserted United Nations, and the other of Ralph running through a deserted Times Square, could not be faked. In neither instance is Ralph interacting with a painting, but is interacting with the real things. In an otherwise-slight film, the presence of two logistically complicated shots were exciting and were honestly more than the movie deserved.
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 In that movie, and other movies discussed in The Celluloid Closet, the subtextual sex – the subsext, if you please – was homosexual. Here it’s interracial.
 And ‘gone’ is meant literally. Apparently one of the side effects of this particular nuclear holocaust is everybody dies and their corpses disappear, because there is not one dead body ever in sight.
 He won his third Oscar the same year as The World, The Flesh, and The Devil for Ben-Hur.
 Sure, that budget is not quite at Ben-Hur levels, which had a budget of $15 million, but that movie had a much larger cast, was shot in color, and had an epic scope. The budget here is more in line with other black and white studio movies of the period like Some Like It Hot ($2.884 million) and The Apartment ($3 million). By contrast, the roughly-similar movie Panic in Year Zero (1962) was produced by AIP and had a budget of just $225,000, despite Ray Milland, Jean Hagen, and Frankie Avalon being in the cast.
 In some ways, The World, The Flesh, and The Devil feels a lot like the love-child of The Last Man on Earth and The Defiant Ones.
 I can’t imagine where Vanilla Sky got the idea for the same shot.