The World, the Flesh and the Devil

The film poster for MGM's 1958 sci-fi wonder, "The World, the Flesh and the Devil".

By David D. Robbins Jr. | The Fade Out

Film critic J. Hoberman begins his most recent book, “An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War” (2011), by singling out what he called an “unexpected discovery”, a film titled, “The Next Voice You Hear” (1950), about a world that hears God through transistor radio broadcasts. It’s a film by director William Wellman, who seems to be gaining more critical approval over the last few years. Wellman’s film “Track of the Cat” (1954), starring Robert Mitchum, about a frontier family facing a black panther, is especially loved by former Chicago Reader film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. And Warner Brothers’ most recent 2009 release of pre-code “Forbidden Hollywood Collection: Volume III” features six of Wellman’s 1930s pieces, “Other Men’s Women”, “The Purchase Price”, “Frisco Jenny”, “Midnight Mary”, “Heroes for Sale”, and “Wild Boys of the Road”. In other words, we have the studio to thank for finally getting these films out, with “The Next Voice You Hear” coming via Warner Archives Collection, a series of made-to-order DVD-Rs.

But this is really a long preamble to say that as interesting as “The Next Voice You Hear” is with leading lady Nancy Davis (the future wife of President Ronald Reagan) and James Whitmore (“Where the Red Fern Grows”) trying to determine what to do next after hearing the voice of god, I think there are greater gems in the collection. There’s Jacques Tourneur’s RKO picture “Berlin Express” (a 1948 thriller set in the occupied zone after the second World War) made available this year; along with the gorgeous “Stars In My Crown” (1950) and “Wichita” (1955), by the same director. There’s Samuel Fuller’s “Verboten!” (1958), a tale of budding love and Naziism amid the ruins of an occupied Germany, and the Ava Gardner-led George Cukor CinemaScope picture, “Bhowani Junction” (1956) set against the background of India’s post-WWII British colonization. There’s the pairing of Jean Simmons and Paul Newman in “Until They Sail” (1957), a film about New Zealand women and loneliness in the face of soldiers being called off to war. It too has only been available on DVD this year thanks to Warner Bros.

They’ve also released fun trifles like “Susan Slept Here” (1954), starring Debbie Reynolds as a young delinquent who falls for the much older Dick Powell. (I guess the censors missed this one.) There’s the Fritz Lang beauties “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” (1956), and “While the City Sleeps” (1956); and Joan Bennett and Robert Ryan in Jean Renoir’s classic “The Woman On the Beach” (1947). Two great finds are the 1956 Nicholas Ray gangster film for Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, “Party Girl”, and the less-often seen Frank Borzage picture, “The Mortal Storm”, about the rise of Nazi youth, starring Jimmy Stewart as a lone voice in a wilderness of group-thought and growing violence. Despite being Hollywood-ized, the unrealistic story of “The Mortal Storm” is still beautiful, and the film’s depiction of Nazi-Germany’s burgeoning brutality was strong enough for the real life Joseph Goebbels, Germany’s minster of propaganda, to ban all MGM films from coming into the country after 1940. There’s Warner’s release of Cecil B. DeMille’s “Madam Satan” (1930) — a disc that was surely on most critics best DVD releases of the year lists in 2010. Warner Bros. also released a quiet melodramatic ditty, “Light in the Piazza”, which is far from a great film, but interesting in its goofy portrayal of Italy as the best remedy for an American girl with a mental impairment looking for love.

But one of the more entertaining and strange films is “The World, The Flesh and the Devil” (1958), the quasi “Jules et Jim” sci-fi, featuring singer/leading man Harry Belafonte. Belafonte is no Richard Burton, that’s for sure. But he seemed to stumble into the occasional good film, including 1959’s noir classic, “Odds Against Tomorrow”. “The World, The Flesh and the Devil” is a doomsday film about the last people on earth, who survive a catastrophe that wipes out humanity. The film begins with Ralph Burton (Belafonte) being trapped in a mine shaft while surveying its deterioration. When he finally emerges, he happens upon a post-apocalyptic world. Burton owes his life to mere coincidence. His first move is to head to New York City, which provides director Ranald MacDougall a chance to film some gorgeous shots of an empty Times Square, dwarfing the confused and lonely Belafonte — reminiscent of scenes in the “Abre Los Ojos” (1997) American-remake “Vanilla Sky” (2001). At first, Burton lugs around a child’s wagon carrying a jug of water and other essentials he finds in abandoned department stores.

Interestingly, the film doesn’t concern itself much with the how’s and why’s of the disaster, but focuses on how people react in a world where there isn’t a culture left to define a set of social mores. We watch as Burton begins to bring some normalcy to his life. But the entire time, he is being watched by a white woman, Sarah Crandall, played by Inger Stevens (“Hang ‘Em High”, “A Guide For the Married Man”), who is interested in trying to determine what kind of person he is before announcing her presence. Crandall begins to fall in love with Burton, his gentle demeanor, and the calm ways he seems to make due with an overwhelming situation. He collects artwork in his apartment, presumably from the New York museums, and saves books from a flooded library. He decorates his apartment with Van Goghs, and sets up mannequins to hold conversations with. (The latter is something we see Will Smith do in 2007’s end of the world thriller, “I Am Legend”.) Burton re-works part of the electrical grid, and fixes telephone lines so he can talk with Crandall, who lives in another building.

It’s the screenplay that gives this film added weight. The film could have devolved, but for the fact that instead of making Crandall an uppity white lady (too easy a way to make race the entire point of the film), the screenplay makes Burton the one with the problem. He can’t shake his insecurity, and the sense of being second-class. Despite helping Crandall, Burton won’t let her live in his building with him because “what would the neighbors think”. (It’s a gorgeous line.) The two find another person, the worldly and shifty Benson Thacker, played by Mel Ferrer, which adds another layer to the plot. His lust for Crandall becomes a problem for all three characters. I’m not sure what “the devil” has to do with the film, but it seems the film’s promotion was based on this triptych of characters, three actors, and a three-image title. Like most old films, it’s really not as racy as the poster or tag lines would suggest. (“This is the setting for the most unusual picture ever filmed”.) The film itself concludes on a strange note, that seems more forced than real, but its surprise doesn’t ruin what is still one of my favorite unexpected discoveries from the Warner Archives.

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