A very thought provoking end-of-the-world tale dealing with matters that are more than just black and white or merely skin deep.
Directed by Ranald MacDougall
Produced by Sol C. Siegel, George Englund, Harry Belafonte (uncredited)
Written by Ranald MacDougall
Screenplay by Ranald MacDougall
Based on novel The Purple Cloud by M. P. Shiel and
story End of the World by Ferdinand Reyher
Music by Miklós Rózsa
Cinematography: Harold J. Marzorati
Edited by Harold F. Kress
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Running time: 95 minutes
Box office: $1,085,000
as Ralph Burton
as Sarah Crandall
as Benson Thacker
The title of the film comes from the Litany in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer: "From all the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil, spare us, good Lord." In Christian theology, the world, the flesh, and the devil has been viewed as being the three enemies of the soul, the sources of temptation, and as standing in opposition to the Trinity.
Read on for more......
Spoilers follow below.....
Now, words like ‘negro’ and ‘coloured’ to describe African-American or black people would cause a lot of folks these days to feel pretty uncomfortable and downright offended. Remember though that we are dealing with a time in history when such references including the highly offensive ‘N’ word were employed without a second thought by many sections of the community. It was a decade in which the early struggles against the practice of racial segregation in such places as schools in the South were taking place. It was also a time in which hooded pointed-headed lunatic Klansmen strutted about spewing their venomous racially-based rubbish and where racial discrimination and inequality flourished.
Even after a period of seeming dormancy and remission, the cancer of bigotry can once again erupt and infect civilization decades later. License is then given to weak-willed and weak-minded white supremacists to hail the deeds of long dead dictators; antisemitism once again rears its ugly head; anti-Muslim hatred and xenophobia capture the airwaves, social media and the deplorably uncritical minds of the gullible; voices are raised to let all now that black lives do matter; statistics speak volumes about race and the justice system, crime, incarceration, education, social and economic inequality….What really lies buried under the surface of our civilization today?
While Burton is making his own way deep under the feet of his own civilization of the late 1950s, a sudden cruel stroke of irony in the form of a cave-in causes rubble and timber beams to rain down on top of him straight after he declares to those listening topside, “man if anything was to go wrong down here….”
Communication is established by means of banging out a code on the water pipes (“Three, three and then two”) and it isn’t long before Burton can hear the sounds of digging heralding the hope of possible rescue. In the meantime, he employs the use of black humour to sustain himself and cope with this stressful ordeal.
“Five days I been down here...”
Just as it appears as though the rescue operation might be nearing its conclusion, the sounds of digging suddenly halt. This is followed by the cessation of the coded banging on the pipes and the stuttering imminent failure of the lights. Fearing abandonment, Burton shouts out, “You didn’t give up on me did ya? I’m alive!”
“I’m out. Coming out!”
In a panic, Burton has only one remaining course of action, to take matters into his own hands by digging himself out from certain death entombed in isolation and make his own way back to the surface and civilization.
A coal fire appears to have started which would normally be viewed as being a calamity, by why is nobody responding to Burton’s calls of alarm, “Coal’s burning!”?
Will perhaps the foreman’s office hold the answers to Burton’s questions? It certainly wont be found via the radio’s dead cold tubes and mute speaker. There the answers lie: on newspapers on a desk announcing;
The gods seem to be having a good laugh at Burton as they fill in the canvas of his fate with thick deft brushstrokes of irony. On the one hand, he has managed to escape imprisonment and a lonely death trapped in the mine. On the other, it seems that his underground prison may have spared him the fate that seems to have befallen the rest of civilization. The question remains: what has Burton exactly escaped to?
“Mrs Crawford, I’m home!”
Armed with a Geiger counter, pistol and ammo, Burton fires off a few rounds while shouting out, “anybody there?” in the hope of attracting someone’s attention. However, it soon becomes obvious that there’s simply no one around but him.
Burton then decides on a course of action that not long before he may never have entertained. Or if he had, he may have had to face the consequences of breaking the law! But under the changed circumstances, what meaning does “the law” have for anyone? The answer to that question comes in the form of Burton deciding to hot-wire and steal a Chrysler convertible from a showroom after smashing the front window with a tyre. The veneer of civilization may only be as thick as a pane of glass!
Burton soon hits upon an idea: to find a destination, the course of which he traces with a pencil on a map. He will head for New York City - the good ‘ole Big Apple, pinnacle of everything that shouts out what it is to be living in the US of A. Besides, there’s bound to be other survivors in such a big city, right?
Does Burton notice the Civil Defense sign as he tries to navigate his way through the insane obstacle course? In an instance (one of many in this film) of perfect irony it reads, “Alert Today – Alive tomorrow. Support National Civil Defense.” Yeah, right! That worked out well!
The only refugee seems to be the solitary Burton who has commandeered a boat which he uses to cross the water into NYC.
“Hello, It’s me, Ralph Burton. I’m alive!”
So shouts the diminutive solitary figure of Burton as he stumbles, staggers and weaves his way along the empty canyons and chasms of the city, his only company the echoing replies of his footfalls. The gods look down on him from above and note his pathetic skittering wanderings as if he were a little ant cut off from the collective life of the colony. Burton’s upward gaze also only serves to highlight his own individual insignificance and sense of isolation amid the brooding and looming man-made monoliths. Surprising how a deserted city can feel dizzyingly oppressive as if it were closing and pressing in on one.
“Out!….Why are you hiding?”
Burton’s next stop is at radio station WKYI. The electric wall clock had stopped at 3.28, presumably the time at which the catastrophe struck. Burton activates a recording which contains information about what happened. On the tape it is announced that the station had “lost London an hour ago” and that “San Francisco went off last night.” It appears that an unidentified nation had unleashed a vast cloud of radioactive sodium dust into the atmosphere as part of an attack on an enemy nation. The sodium dust cloud got out of control and within days the fallout had spread all over the entire world with lethal consequences for every living creature in its path. In just four years time the real world will experience a scenario that would come uncomfortably close to achieving such an outcome!
Burton exits the radio station and tosses a coin into the air. Will it matter which side it lands? Will Burton just have to rely on Fate to decide the path he will take? As he moves off, the feet of a stranger (a female) suddenly appears, walks over the discarded coin and follows closely behind him. It seems there’s a new twist of Fate in the offing.
How many of us have from time to time fantasized about what it would be like if everyone else in the world would just disappear. There are times when the prospect of us being the only one left in the world would seem like paradise. After all, people can be so damn annoying. The world would be a great place if it wasn’t for human beings! Take people out of the equation and you would remove all the hustle and bustle of life, the pressures that are imposed on each of us, the pettiness and stupidity, the pointless divisions, the endless round and hassles of the rat race and so on and so on.
Then again, even while being surrounded by people in a densely populated city it is possible for an individual to feel terribly lonely, isolated, marginalized and alienated – quite often based on ethnicity, skin colour, age, socio-economic status and so on.
For Ralph Burton, having suddenly found himself in a vacant New York City, living a life without human physical, intellectual and emotional contact is about to become a grim reality……
1: The Loneliest Number
The incessant rain and whipping wind seem delighted to be liberated to do their work of cleansing the deserted streets of the city. Little does Burton know that he is being observed as his heart skips a beat upon seeing a baby’s pram being almost mockingly blown past him by the wicked wind. What need is there for him to be standing outside and mercilessly assaulted by the elements? His place of residence is suddenly proclaimed by a sign advertising” Two bedroom apartments – Vacancy.” I wonder if the irony of that last word has escaped his attention?
And so our hero begins his life of solitude by keeping mind and body active, lest his spirit succumb to the ravages of isolation and solitude. A practical man he is too for he employs his welding and electrical skills to good effect by restoring light and power to his apartment block.
Burton has also begun transferring books from the nearby library with the leaking roof to the floor below his flat as a means of preserving part of the learning and culture of his civilization. Some might ask, why bother? Why indeed. Burton’s actions suggests some kind of purpose and optimism on his part in that he hasn’t entirely given up on civilization or the future. There is still some importance and value he attaches to mankind's artistic endeavors which he wants to preserve, despite the fact that he might be the last person on Earth.
As the lights come on in Burton’s corner of the world, we see the watching woman turn to face a shop window behind which a small mechanical man goes through its pre-programmed routine and which seems to turn its head to briefly face her. What she wants, however is a man of flesh and blood for company and not just some mechanical mockery.
Barton, obviously pleased with his achievements, notices his shadow being cast on a wall by the artificial lights. With a feeling of joie de vivre, he performs a bit of jig and pantomime as his shadow grows larger. It’s as if his body has been vaporized by an atomic blast leaving only a shadow-like representation of what he was on the wall. Despite the joy he feels, is there a kind of pathos involved here in the form of a symbolic representation of his fate should he be destined to live all alone? Will he in effect become little more than a shadow - a parody of his former self – a black man in a white man’s world but not seen as having substance as a man?
Burton decides to survey his little kingdom from on high - one single glimmer of hope amid the dark stony silence of a dead city.
“I've laid around and played around this old town too long, And I feel like I gotta travel on”
With his train set set up and running in his apartment, our multi-talented hero strums a tune on his guitar and sings about the need to travel on, having been in this town too long. With only his two eternally frozen mannequins as his audience, Burton suddenly turns on the grinning Snodgrass and challenges it: “What’s so funny? I’m lonely and you’re laughin’...You don’t care, do you? No sadness, no feeling!” Expressing what many who are part of any marginalized minority group, Burton lashes out at Snodgrass by stating, “you look at me but you don’t see me!” before casting him out of the third storey window.
Sunday April 9
As Snodgrass crashes on to the pavement, the watching woman is close-by and screams in shock thinking that it must have been the man she had been observing for so long who had thrown himself out of the window in a desperate act of suicide.
Her screams attract the attention of Burton and immediately brings the realization that he is no longer alone. One would expect that two such lonely and desperate people would fly towards each other in their craving for human contact like a couple of magnets. And yet their speech comes across like lines of written dialogue being read with caution and in a stilted manner. The watching woman even shies away from Burton as he physically draws closer to her which causes him to observe, “we’re probably the only two people in the world and all you can say is ‘don’t touch me.’” He follows this up with...”look I live here. Drop me a postcard some time.”
Is the woman responding to an acquired or learned fear of strange men and what could be on their minds in such a situation of being alone with a vulnerable woman? Or is it perhaps a socially learned taboo of a white girl being alone with a “coloured” man whose intentions are probably assumed to be evil.
After mutually deciding to start over again with proper introductions, Burton learns that the woman’s name is Sarah Crandall and that she had been in a decompression chamber with two others when disaster struck. The other two she was with left the chamber too early and had died.
Burton then asks Sarah where she lives and asks her if she’ll be coming back. Her body language gives away her desire and longing to be with and stay with Burton which she expresses out loud stating, “I need you Ralph Burton.” Instead of acting on this understandable and purely human need, he simply replies, “I’m here.” It seems that he too is feeling the weight of society’s baggage despite the wiping away of the old civilization and its conventions and morays. An ominous rumble of thunder foreshadows trouble ahead.
Burton suddenly asks Sarah what day it is and the date. The fact that she knows suggests that Sarah has indeed been keeping track of the passage of time and that is all she has had to do so far. What a reminder it must have been of her lonely despairing predicament and what would be in front of her for the rest of her days!
Side Note: On April 9 1914 a film called, "World, the Flesh & the Devil" was one of the first full color feature films, shown in London where it premièred at the Holborn Empire, High Holborn.
This (now lost) British silent film was made using the additive color ‘Kinemacolor’ process.The film’s plot involved babies being switched at birth and the results of mistaken identity. Coincidence?
“This is New York calling the world. There are two of us alive in New York City.”
So how goes things for these two people who are left alive in New York City…..?
Ralph has opened a line of communication with Sarah by getting the phone to work and has also begun regular broadcasts on the radio, hoping to contact other survivors.
While having lunch together, Sarah asks Ralph, “Ralph, wouldn’t it be easier if I moved into this building?”
“No,” Ralph replies curtly.
“Why not?” Sarah asks him
“People might talk.” Ralph replies.
Sarah seems to be unconcerned about their racial differences, but Ralph is still hamstrung by the prohibitions that had existed over such matters within a racist society. Even the sight of his dark-skinned hand against the whiteness of Sarah’s dress as he reaches to take away her white plate seems to reinforce this fact for him.
Sarah and Ralph quarrel, each of them slicing at each other through the emotional and sexual tension with knives of misplaced anger. Sarah a young and vital woman, declares that along with everything else, “everything is getting rusty, including me.”
Without even thinking Sarah then blurts out, “I’m free, white and 21 and I’m going to do what I please.” It’s a kind of statement that although laden with social meaning and significance, is often non-nonchalantly made without a second thought. It is one of the many small conduits by which the cancer of a civilization can spread and do it’s damaging and destructive work.
It is this cancer that has also invaded and infected Ralph that causes him to feel that he is unable to bring himself to acknowledge the feelings that are building up within himself and Sarah, as well as the changed circumstances they both find themselves in. As a consequence, Sarah comes to the realization that, “no matter what happens I’ll never get married….There’s nobody left to marry anybody.” Incredibly, Ralph seems to jump at this opportunity to justify his sheer idiocy by telling Sarah that he’ll find somebody for her to marry and that he’ll perform the marriage himself. He then states, “you can’t be too particular, you’ll have to take what you can get.” Does he get the irony of that statement as it applies to their own situation?
Ralph finally comes to the crux of the matter when he is forced point blank to acknowledge to Sarah that, “if you’re squeamish about words, I’m coloured and if you face facts I’m a negro. If you’re a polite southerner I’m a negre and I’m a nigger if you’re not.”
He then goes on to point out to Sarah the power to wound that words have when he alludes to her earlier reference to being young, white and free and how it was like an arrow in his guts, even though she had probably heard and used it a thousand times before.
After a few days’ disappearance, Ralph has returned and has organized a birthday celebration for Sarah. It almost seems that Sarah finally has the chance to be a woman and that perhaps she and Ralph could establish a romantic intimate relationship.
Ralph plays all the roles at the hotel restaurant from singer to waiter: all the roles except one! When Sarah inquires if Mr Burton might join her, Ralph pulls out a verbal knife and inserts it into her heart by stating that “Mr. Burton isn’t permitted to sit with the customers.”
As a song plays in the background with the lyrics, “I kissed from a distance,” Ralph reveals to Sarah, “That’s right, you and I are not alone in the world anymore – Civilization’s back.” Sarah then asks him, “would it really make that much of a difference?” Ralph replies, “You know it makes a difference, Miss Crandall.”
Maintaining her dignity, but obviously cut to the quick, Sarah states before exiting,“I have pride too, you know. Good night Ralph.” Ralph is then left alone with the ironic sound of recorded applause, a sarcastic rebuttal of his cruel denial.
“A boat in the river under its own power”
A few days later, an added complication sails into Sarah and Ralph’s world in the form of an old boat chugging its way towards them in the harbor. Its pilot is a man by the name of Benson Thacker who introduces himself as “the total population of the southern hemisphere.”
Ben is clearly ill and Ralph and Sarah take him off to Ralph’s place to nurse him back to health. Ralph is quite aware of the implications of Ben’s arrival when he tells Sarah that in Ben’s case “dying’s nothing. Maybe I’m worried about what will happen if he lives.”
The ramifications of Ben’s arrival upon the stuttering and staggering developing relationship between Ralph and Sarah become apparent almost immediately after Ben regains consciousness.
“Which floor do you live on?” Ben asks of Sarah.
“I don’t live here. I have a place of my own,” replies Sarah to which Ben meaningfully responds with, “I see...”
Feeling the need to explain the situation, Sarah informs Ben that “I’d rather live here but he wont let me.” Saying quite a lot without saying much, Ben then comments that Ralph must be “quite a guy.”
The expression on Ralph’s face as he enters the room while the other two joke around as Sarah prepares and threatens to cut Ben’s beard, doesn’t require dialogue to convey what he is thinking and feeling.
The situation involving Ralph and Sarah is summed up neatly in Ben’s mind when Sarah asks Ralph if he wants to stay for lunch and he merely responds that he would…..if she doesn’t mind. The scene is set for a rather interesting, volatile and pathetic love triangle.
“You and I and Ralph.”
Not surprisingly, we discover that Ralph has been avoiding Sarah and Ben for a week.
In the meantime, Sarah and Ben have organized a picnic and Sarah asks Ralph with a rather meaningful look, “come with us, there’s enough for three.” Half-heartedly, Ben chimes in with, “Yeah, come with us.” Later on Ben surmises that Ralph is deliberately leaving him and Sarah alone together and wonders why.
Meanwhile, in quite a symbolic scene, we see Ralph holding a picture of a black man who is alone in a boat at sea and is struggling against a tempest. Ralph looks in the mirror and comments, “Poor slob. All alone in the world,” and crashes the edge of the picture frame into the mirror on the wall, breaking the mirror’s glass.
Sure, Ralph appears to be unable to shake off civilization’s finger-wagging admonishing taboos and morays. Unfortunately, he comes off as being like a confused teenager who is obviously in love but feels both unwilling and unable to show his love or do anything about it. This is made even more so considering the circumstances they have found themselves to be in. Instead, all he can do is adopt the stance of a long suffering and self-sacrificing martyr who is willing to let the one he loves fall into another’s embraces. Ralph cannot even bring himself to pack up and leave the scene of his obvious distress. It’s as if he is wallowing in his own suffering.
At the picnic we gain some insight into Ben’s character. He sarcastically tells Sarah that “somebody somewhere pushed a button” causing him to become “an ex-idealist.”
Sarah, however sees through him and replies that no one who says that is an “ex” anything.
We also learn that Ben had been married with two children. Sarah on the other hand, admits that she has never been married …….or “anything.” Ben then observes that “sooner or later you and I are going to have to discuss that.” Sarah qualifies that observation by correcting him, “you and I and Ralph.”
Not all the sides of this love-triangle seem to fit all that well. It seems though that with the law of supply and demand being what it is, Sarah is the one with the real bargaining power and she is in a sense quite right with her observation above. Conditions have changed and so must their expectations of the kind of arrangement or relationship that is to form between the three of them.
We next see the trio watching a news reel movie with the title, Faulty wire trips the Vanguard and World lovelies take Ferris ride. Ralph rather sardonically tells the other two, “this is what I found, everyone having a good time.” With this clever juxtaposition of items, we are presented with a scenario in which people are depicted as blissfully enjoying the fruits of civilization while having failed (perhaps despite the earlier warnings) to notice the seeds of their own destruction being sown in the form of fallible destructive human technology placed at the disposal of fallible human beings giving vent to their destructive impulses. The result? The end of civilization. Sound at all familiar?
When Sarah suggests they have drinks, Ralph simply requests a beer. As if rubbing salt into Ralph’s wounds, Ben asks for the usual and adds, “you know what I like.” The message is delivered loud and clear to Ralph.
“Something’s got to give.”
Ralph tells Ben that he reminds him of a fellow called Snodgrass and how he couldn’t tell what was on his mind as well. We all know what happened to good old Snodgrass!
Ben says to Ralph, “nice of you to give me a clear field” which stings all the more since it implies that Ralph was doing him some kind of favour. Ben by this stage is reaching boiling point and he points out to Ralph that “something’s got to give.” Ralph replies, “I already have. More than I have to. More than I want to. As much as I’m going to.”
After telling Ralph it might’ve been better to have let him die and tritely pointing out that “some things work out and some things don’t,” Ben pokes Ralph with his walking stick, not once but twice. One couldn’t think of a more disrespectful thing for an adult to do to another adult in order to get that person’s attention. You would have to wonder if he would have done that if Ralph was a white man.
Hold that thought, because Ben says to Ralph “I have nothing against Negroes,” to which Ralph sarcastically replies, “that’s white of you.” Ben sounds like one of those radio talk-back listeners who ring up during hysterical tirades against minority ethnic and racial groups and begins with the statement, “I’m not a racist, but…..” Then why bring it up? Scratch the surface of many of us and we’d be surprised at what we’d uncover about ourselves despite our protestations to the contrary.
Sarah re-enters the room while the two men quarrel over her and she asks them why they don’t just toss a coin to decide.
After Sarah rushes out into the street, Ben takes off after her. Sarah finds out that Ralph had sent him after her which as far as she is concerned amounts to a kind of last straw. In a fit of emotional desperation she clings to Ben in a passionate embrace and pleads with him to make her forget. Suddenly, Sarah runs off from Ben which almost sends him into an emotional tail-spin. He then makes for the nearest gun shop (no background checks needed!) to obtain the means to wipe out one side of this unhinged triangle. Fortunately, the civilized man in Ben re-asserts himself and he changes his mind.
After a two weeks’ absence. Sarah calls in on Ralph with some flowers that are in bloom. Adding to the sense of new-found hope, Ralph has received a signal from Europe.
Any hope involving their relationship however, appears to be dashed as Ralph feigns being busy and simply tells Sarah, “you know how it is.” After further discussion between the two, Ralph finally declares his love for Sarah. However, he tells her that he wants Ben to have her! Quite rightly, Sarah points out that “sooner or later someone’s going to have to ask me what I want,” to which Ralph replies, “it wont be me that asks.”
Considering how Sarah and Ralph feel about each other, Ralph’s almost incomprehensible attitude, his decision to remain close-by and Ben’s obvious frustration, the emotional magma is set to rise up from a subterranean chamber of turmoil, discontent and frustration before exploding in a final dramatic fiery eruption.
We next see Ben playing the piano at Sarah’s place. On the surface it seems as if Ralph’s attitude has decided matters as far as Ben and Sarah are concerned. The sudden flickering of the lights serve as a reminder of Ralph’s presence both in a physical sense as well as his presence in Sarah’s heart. It’s not something one can wipe away with sex or the tyranny of distance.
We now see another side of Ben, more determined to get what he wants. Sensing this, Sarah comments to Ben, “Ralph says you are good man. Are you?” For Ben the whole situation has simply narrowed down the opics of conversation and requires no need for “parlour games….Meanwhile, me man, you girl.”
Ben believes that when he had earlier kissed Sarah, she had finally come alive, but that now he’s sick of just talking. He even tells Sarah, “I could force you...no-one to hear you scream….Shall I force you?”
For Sarah, such a brutal and ugly course of action would be “a way of getting me to make up my mind.” In frustration she says to Ben, “I’m sick of you both.” She’s sick of Ralph who doesn’t know what he wants, whereas all Ben can think of is what he wants.
“World War Four”
Ben finally decides to settle matters with Ralph by confronting him face-to-face. He accuses Ralph of being “everywhere, that’s the trouble. Plotting and scheming like some fancy spider.” He wants him just to “move on. See how things are like in Chicago or San Francisco.”
Ralph tells him, “running away isn’t my style.” This is unacceptable to Ben who says to Ralph, “I’d keep watching for you every day, around every corner…...Well it’s you or me.”
Ralph pointedly says to Ben, “make no mistake. I’ll kill you if you push me to it.” Ralph even has a chance to shoot him in the back but Ben knows him well enough to take a chance that he wont do it and walks out of room all the time with his back to Ralph. Before Ben departs, Ralph is put on notice by him that the next time he sees Ralph, he will try to kill him.
We next see the two armed men hunting each other through the empty streets. The implications contained in the course of action they have embarked on seem to be remarked on by a sign warning to ‘Watch Your Step’ located at a subway entrance. As if anyone would need reminding considering the course of action that was decided and embarked upon by their civilization which led to its demise!
Another sign attached to a pole above where Ralph pauses brandishing his rifle stands as an ironic comment on the nature of the two men’s actions. It warns of a “Fine” that would’ve in the past been imposed for a minor civic violation which is in stark contrast to the kinds of crimes against humanity that have already been committed and that are now about to be committed by the remaining remnants of humanity hell bent on killing each other!
Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
During the pursuit through the streets of the city, Burton stops to read the sign outside UN building:
“They shall beat their swords into plow shares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
Book of Isaiah 2:4.
The full import of the words leads to Ralph throwing down his gun and heading off to face Ben unarmed. As soon as the two men come face-to-face, Ben challenges Ralph, “Why wont you fight?”
Two signs in background indicate “One Way,” as if silently hinting at the only possible direction or path for the two men to proceed along in order to avoid repeating the mistakes made by and ultimate fate of their civilization. Ben finds himself unable to shoot Ralph and defeated, he starts walking away.
As Sarah approaches Ralph tells her that the reason he’s alive is to save things where ever he can. Sarah, however tells him that he can’t go and holds out her hand and he takes it: Black and white joined together. After calling Ben back to join them, all three walk onward hand-in-hand toward a new future with the words, “The Beginning’ instead of the usual expected and inevitable “The End” appearing on the screen.