The best science fiction does not always involve aliens and monsters. They just need a unique premise to explore human nature by throwing regular people in bizarre situations. That is how Ranald MacDougall’s underrated thriller The World, The Flesh and The Devil works. This bizarre picture, headlined by fantastic performances from Harry Belafonte, Inger Stevens and Mel Ferrer, lives up to its billing as the “most unusual story ever told.”
The premise behind the film isn’t all that unique though. Stories about life after the end of the world are a dime a dozen, but many get bogged down in trying to explain how it happened. MacDougall’s script, inspired by M.P. Sheil’s novel The Purple Cloud and Ferdinand Reyher’s story “End of the World,” doesn’t care. There is no how in The World, The Flesh and The Devil because that’s not what this movie is about. It’s really about how three regular people try to survive as the only people left alive in New York City.
It all starts with coal mine inspector Ralph Burton (Belafonte) getting stuck in a mine thanks to a routine mishap. While waiting to be rescued, Ralph notices that his colleagues have stopped. Days later, he emerges to realize no one else is alive. Through little bits of information, we learn there has been a mysterious atomic poison has caused death and destruction around the world.
Ralph eventually makes his way to New York City, where he later meets the impossibly beautiful white woman Sarah Crandall (Stevens). Their lives move along without issue until a white man, Benson Thacker (Ferrer) shows up and things get really complicated fast.
Race is a big issue in this film, and probably one reason why Belafonte, one of the most active celebrities in the Civil Rights Movement, wanted to make it. The World, The Flesh and the Devil hinges on our ability to put differences aside for the best outcome. But it also shows how social conventions and stereotypes can outlast anything, and we have to be brave to break them. We can see that today, even without a real apocalypse.
The passion for the material comes through in the performances. Belafonte is brilliant as Ralph, and he has to be as he carries the first third of the movie all by himself. He’s incredibly charming and charismatic in the role, and it is fun to see how he figures out ways to show off his vocal talents. But it takes real skill to pull off the emotional swings Belafonte has to pull off here and he does it without batting an eye. Even after the impossibly beautiful Stevens and the villainous Ferrer show up, Belafonte continues the carry the picture.
The World, The Flesh And The Devil is still a flawed film. MacDougall, more than a decade after earning an Oscar nomination for adapting Mildred Pierce, could have used a co-writer to spruce up some of the dialogue and strip it of its pedantic tendencies. His script really does not care about the “how” behind the apocalypse, to the point that there’s some head-scratching logic at play to bring these characters together. The ending is also ludicrous, as MacDougall tries to build a climax that doesn’t quite reach the heights he wants it to.
Nevertheless, the film’s strong suits keep it interesting. The premise is strange enough that you can’t look away, and the performances from the three stars are strong. The World, The Flesh and The Devil also features some fascinating black and white CinemaScope cinematography by Harold J. Marzorati and a dramatic score by Miklos Rosza.
Warner Archive released The World, The Flesh and The Devil on DVD back in 2011, and released it on Blu-ray in November 2019. There were no previously-created extras to include, so the only bonus here is a trailer. The transfer is (as usual) amazing, coming from a new 2K scan that highlights the amazing detail of the source. Although only 95 minutes, the film is presented on a dual-layered BD-50 disc.
The World, The Flesh and The Devil has its fans, and if you are of them, this is a must- have release and the best the film will ever look on home video. For first-timers though, check it out during its frequent appearances on TCM or rent.
Thanks to Warner Archive for providing this disc to review! You can get it at WBShop.com.