The end of the world as we know it and only three people remain. With an intriguing title, THE WORLD, THE FLESH, AND THE DEVIL is a mostly forgotten film directed by Ranald MacDougall, screenwriter for some of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford's vehicles from the late 1940s. It tries to flesh out a grim apocalyptic story about what would happen if the world and civilization as we know it came to an abrupt end, and all that was left, at least so far, was a smattering of humans, each of them believing that they were the only ones left.
Post-apocalyptic stories have been around for ages -- since the Bible's own last chapter, "Revelations". When it wasn't an alien race deciding to take over our planet for their own purposes of blind conquer in H. G. Wells "War of the Worlds" it was the world turned upside down by the sudden mutation of humankind into vampires, as in Richard Matheson's "I Am Legend." Until the reality of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the mega-powers of the world experimenting with nuclear energy harnessed as the means of mass annihilation took force in the 1940s, science-fiction was little more than tales about Moon colonies, Martian cities, space adventures in other worlds and time travel. Robert A. Heinlein, one of the front-runners of social science fiction, was already writing stories around 1940 based on the potential for human extinction through nuclear warfare. His short story "The Year of the Jackpot" which appeared in 1952 and was part of an anthology called "The Menace from Earth" tackled the destruction of the Earth by nuclear warheads and is one of the most gripping stories of mankind's need for survival even when the odds are against it. The last paragraphs, where the man and the woman await their final end as the Sun sets, is haunting.
THE WORLD, THE FLESH, AND THE DEVIL might as well have been a sequel to "The Year of the Jackpot" told by the points of view of the survivors of this horrific nuclear attack that has destroyed the Earth on a global level. The first half hour is an extended silent film where images of a desolate land prevail as the main character, Ralph (played by Harry Belafonte), emerges from the mine where he's been trapped and finds an overpowering, endless sea of a world where time has frozen and no one is to be found. His slow approach to the truth of the matter is gut-wrenching in its vapid horror -- seeing even little things, like an abandoned umbrella or an empty house. It recalls a much later movie about a different, but equally lethal situation in 28 DAYS LATER... as Cillian Murphy walks among the wreck of a deserted London, unaware he's not alone.
But Ralph thinks he is alone. Arriving at New York in a progressive sequence of images is a knot of foreboding, quiet menace. It seems, at times, he must have fallen through a worm-hole and into a mirror image of the city. Enclosed in darkness, it looms at him so menacingly there is the feeling he would be better off doing an about-face and going elsewhere. The camera tracks his progress, making sure we know just how small he is in a sea of skyscrapers with not a single human in them. Once he discovers the truth, Belafonte's face is completely revealing in its anguish that can only express itself through his luminous face, haunted eyes, and single tear rolling down the side of his face. It's here he decides he must make do as the Last Man on Earth, trying not to lose his sanity when apparently, being sane is now as frightening as being alone.
For a moment, then, the story becomes an exercise in a surreal dream. Belafonte will still be alone on camera for another stretch of time and he acts as if he still has people around him -- all the more unsettling. He has dinner with mannequins, he sings to no one in particular, and plays with his own shadow as if he were trying to make that shadow another person -- an extension of himself.
When someone finally does appear, the story takes off into some different territory and loses some of its punch. When we see her, Inger Stevens is appropriately dressed in black and looks like she's just about lost her mind. She could well be in a state of extended mourning. Seeing another human should cause relief, but the movie has other melodramatic intentions, and from here on, it begins to fail.
In most stories about people finding each other after a global catastrophe there's a sense of madness just underneath a facade of happy anxiety. After all, when you think you're the only person left alive and you see someone else, you're wary but equally overjoyed. MacDougall is good in focusing on this aspect -- he at first makes us see Stevens' feet as she follows Belafonte (though their appearance is too quick to make me believe Belafonte did not hear her behind him). It's when they begin interacting and she chooses to dress in suburban white and act as if nothing had happened that I felt the seams of credibility burst. Adding another male character -- Mel Ferrer's -- is good, but bad, because now it creates the basis of a possible conflict. The fact that Stevens and race is the source of conflict is practically unbelievable considering what they've gone through, but race was an issue in 1959. This of course is the problem: old patterns of conflict have to emerge in order to maintain a sense of familiarity, as in Stephen King's "The Stand." It's why these types of movies are good in concept, but fail in execution. THE WORLD, THE FLESH, AND THE DEVIL would have fit as an episode of "The Twilight Zone", but not as a 90 minute feature-length film.
Review by nycritic from the Internet Movie Database.