Film Review: The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (dir by Ranald MacDougall)

The 1959 film, The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, opens with a mine cave-in in Pennsylvania.  Trapped in the cave-in is a mine inspector named Ralph Burton (Harry Belafonte).  Despite being trapped underground, Ralph remains in surprisingly good spirits.  (In fact, as the movie progresses, Ralph’s tendency to joke when faced with bleak reality will become a recurring theme.)  Ralph sings to himself.  Ralph tells jokes.  Ralph listens to the sound of the men who are digging a tunnel to rescue him.  Except, one day, Ralph can no longer hear anyone digging.  Realizing that he’s going to have to save himself, Ralph manages to dig his way out of the cave.  Once again above ground, Ralph discovers that he’s alone.

The world has changed.  Cars and buildings sit deserted.  Everything that was made by mankind is still there but it’s all now empty.  Confused but understanding that something huge has happened, Ralph makes his way from Pennsylvania to New York.  During his journey, he comes across old newspapers and a recording in a radio station and he’s able to piece together what’s happened.  Some country — no one was ever sure which one — released a radioactive isotope into the atmosphere.  For five days, the air was poisoned.  Everyone who didn’t get to shelter died.  The only reason Ralph survived was because he was trapped underground.

At first, New York appears to be as deserted as Pennsylvania.  (The film was shot on location in Manhattan, reportedly in the early morning hours before rush hour, when there was no one on the streets.  The visuals of the empty city are often hauntingly bleak.)  Struggling to maintain his own sanity, Ralph steals two mannequins and spends his days talking to them.  He comes up with projects to pass the time.  He’s able to get the power flowing in Times Square.  And he even meets another survivor!

Sarah Crandall (Inger Stevens) was one of three friends who hid in a bunker when the world started to end.  Sarah’s two friends left the bunker after two days and were killed by the radioactive cloud.  Sarah waited the entire five days and survived.  Though we don’t learn much about her background, it’s heavily suggested that Sarah was rich and didn’t have a care in the world before society collapsed.  Now, she and Ralph are just happy to have found each other.

Sarah and Ralph quickly become friends.  Sarah has obvious romantic feelings towards Ralph but, to her frustration, he keeps his distance.  When Sarah asks why they don’t just live together instead of maintaining separate apartments, Ralph nervously jokes that if they got a place together, people would talk.  Sarah is white and Ralph is black.  When Sarah says that doesn’t matter anymore, Ralph tells her that it does matter and that she has no idea what his life was like before the world ended.  When a frustrated Sarah says that she can move in with Ralph because she’s “free, white, and 21 and I can do whatever I want,” Ralph looks like she’s just slapped him.  Later, Ralph tells her that, because she’s white, she will never be able to understand the pain that her words caused him.  I can only imagine how audiences in 1959 reacted to this scene.

Eventually, Ralph discovers that there are scattered survivors across the world.  One of them, Benson Thacker (Mel Ferrer), even comes to New York and joins Ralph and Sarah.  With the arrival of the white Thacker, Ralph suddenly finds himself being treated like a servant.  Thacker not only attempts to take over the group but he also tells Ralph that Sarah belongs to him.  When Thacker, a self-described “former idealist,” tells Ralph, “I have nothing against Negroes,” Ralph coldly replies, “That’s mighty white of you,” and again, the modern viewer cannot help but wonder how audiences in 1959 reacted to hearing those words uttered on a movie screen.

The World, the Flesh, and the Devil is a frequently fascinating film.  Belafonte brings a lot of charm and wit to the role of Ralph but he also doesn’t shy away from portraying Ralph’s anger at still being limited by the conventions of a society that, for all intents and purposes, has destroyed itself.  Ralph brings New York back to life, just to watch as Thacker moves in and claims it for himself.  Significantly, Thacker doesn’t view himself as being a racist.  Instead, in his mind, he’s simply living the way that he’s always lived.  By treating Ralph like a second class citizen, he’s keeping society alive.  Sarah, meanwhile, is torn between her desire to create a new world and the temptation to return to her spoiled and privileged upbringing.  While the film is dominated by Belafonte’s performance, both Inger Stevens and Mel Ferrer bring some shadings to characters that, in lesser hands, could have been extremely flat and predictable.

The film falls apart a bit during the third act.  The World, the Flesh, and the Devil spends a good deal of time building up to a rather downbeat climax just to suddenly reverse itself.  The film ends on a hopeful note that just doesn’t feel realistic after everything that we’ve just seen.  The film’s conclusion brings a promise of renewal that feels like it was tacked on at the last moment.  Still, up until that moment, it’s a compelling and intelligent film and one that’s feels ever more relevant today than it probably did in 1959.

Cinemax Friday: Fugitive Rage (1996, directed by Fred Olen Ray)

When gangster Tommy Stompanato (Jay Richardson) is acquitted of murdering her sister, ex-cop Tara McCormick (Wendy Schumacher) gets justice her own way.  She shoots him.  Six times.  In the middle of a crowded courtroom.  Somehow, Tommy survives taking six bullets at point blank range while Tara is arrested and sent to prison.

In prison, Tara stands up to the usual collection of cruel inmates and predatory guards.  She bonds with her cellmate, Josie (Shauna O’Brien).  Josie may be a murderer but the only man she killed was her abusive husband so, like Tara, she had a good reason for committing her crime.  Tara and Josie become so close that when an federal agent named O’Keefe (Tim Abell) offers to spring Tara from jail in return for her help in taking down Tommy, Tara demands that Josie receive a pardon as well.

After O’Keefe agrees to her demands, Tara leaves the prison with him.  While they get busy at a safehouse, Tommy and his right-hand man, Ryker (Ross Hagen), arrange for Josie to be kidnapped from the prison.  With Josie being held as a hostage, it’s time for a final confrontation between Tara and Tommy.  There’s a “surprise” twist at the end so don’t you dare to tell anyone about the final ten minutes of Fugitive Rage.

Fugitive Rage may be a typical hyrbid of the action and women-in-prison genres but it’s also a Fred Olen Ray film, which means that it’s got even more nudity than expected and that it’s more self-aware of the conventions of the genre than some other films about women behind bars.  There’s a lot that you can say about Fred Olen Ray’s style of filmmaking but no one will ever accuse him of taking himself too seriously and Fugitive Rage at least has a sense of humor about itself.  It’s hard to watch scenes like the one where Tara guns down a crooked lawyer just because he’s a lawyer without thinking that Fugitive Rage is deliberately poking fun at itself.

Fugitive Rage ends with the promise that Tara and Josie are going to become the new “Thelma and Louise” but, as far as I know, Fugitive Rage never got a sequel.  Instead, it just found a home on late night Cinemax.

Film Review: Murder on the Orient Express (dir by Sidney Lumet)

There’s been a murder on the Orient Express!

In the middle of the night, a shady American businessman (Richard Widmark) was stabbed to death.  Now, with the train momentarily stalled due to a blizzard, its up to the world’s greatest detective, Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney), to solve the crime.  With only hours to go before the snow is cleared off the tracks and the case is handed over to the local authorities, Hercule must work with Bianchi (Martin Balsam) and Dr. Constantine (George Coulouris) to figure out who among the all-star cast is a murderer.

Is it the neurotic missionary played by Ingrid Bergman?  Is it the diplomat played by Michael York or his wife, played by Jacqueline Bisset?  Is it the military man played by Sean Connery?  How about Anthony Perkins or John Gielgud?  Maybe it’s Lauren Bacall or could it be Wendy Hiller or Rachel Roberts or even Vanessa Redgrave?  Who could it be and how are they linked to a previous kidnapping, one that led to the murder of an infant and the subsequent death of everyone else in the household?

Well, the obvious answer, of course, is that it had to be Sean Connery, right?  I mean, we’ve all seen From Russia With Love.  We know what that man is capable of doing on a train.  Or what about Dr. No?  Connery shot a man in cold blood in that one and then he smirked about it.  Now, obviously, Connery was playing James Bond in those films but still, from the minute we see him in Murder on the Orient Express, we know that he’s a potential killer.  At the height of his career, Connery had the look of a killer.  A sexy killer, but a killer nonetheless….

Actually, the solution to the mystery is a bit more complicated but you already knew that.  One of the more challenging things about watching the 1974 version of Murder on the Orient Express is that, in all probability, the viewer will already know how the victim came to be dead.  As convoluted as the plot may be, the solution is also famous enough that even those who haven’t seen the 1974 film, the remake, or read Agatha Christie’s original novel will probably already know what Poirot is going to discover.

That was something that director Sidney Lumet obviously understood.  Hence, instead of focusing on the mystery, he focuses on the performers.  His version of Murder on the Orient Express is full of character actors who, along with being talented, were also theatrical in the best possible way.  The film is essentially a series of monologues, with each actor getting a few minutes to show off before Poirot stepped up to explain what had happened.  None of the performances are exactly subtle but it doesn’t matter because everyone appears to be having a good time.  (Finney, in particular, seems to fall in love with his occasionally indecipherable accent.)  Any film that has Anthony Perkins, John Gielgud, Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, and Albert Finney all acting up a storm is going to be entertaining to watch.

Though it’s been a bit overshadowed by the Kenneth Branagh version, the original Murder on the Orient Express holds up well.  I have to admit that Sidney Lumet always seems like he would have been a bit of an odd choice to direct this film.  I mean, just consider that he made this film in-between directing Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon.  However, Lumet pulls it off, largely by staying out of the way of his amazing cast and letting them act up a storm.  It looks like it was a fun movie to shoot.  It’s certainly a fun movie to watch, even if we do already know the solution.

Book Review: Go Ask Alice by “Anonymous”

“Another day, another blow job,” writes the anonymous author of Go Ask Alice.

It’s only been a few months since she first dropped acid and smoked weed for the first time and the narrator has already run away from home and turned to prostitution to support her raging drug habit.  First published in 1971 and continuously in print since then, Go Ask Alice is presented as being the narrator’s journal, found amongst her belongings after she died of a drug overdose.  (Despite popular belief, the narrator is not named Alice.  Her name is never actually mentioned in the journal.)  That one line — “Another day, another blow job” — pretty much sums up Go Ask Alice.  It’s very dramatic.  Depending on who is reading it, it’s very shocking.  And it’s so perfectly quotable that it’s hard to believe that someone just scrawled it down in a journal.

Of course, some of that’s because Go Ask Alice isn’t actually a diary.  Though it’s never been officially confirmed, most researchers believe that it was actually written by Beatrice Sparks, a therapist who originally presented herself as being the diary’s editor.  Sparks later went on to “edit” several other anonymous diaries, all written by teenagers who had gotten involved with things like Satanism, eating disorders, and gang violence.

Even if I hadn’t read (on, I’ll admit it, Wikipedia) that Go Ask Alice was not actually written by a 15 year-old girl, it would be obvious just from some of what it is written in the diary.  I reread it a few weeks ago and the thing that immediately jumped out at me was that the narrator apparently didn’t write much about anything that didn’t have to do with drugs.  There’s none of the banal stuff that you would typically expect to find in someone’s personal journal.  The narrator doesn’t mention television or movies or music or books.  She barely even talks about the boy she likes, other than to mention that he exists and she’s not sure if he likes her back.  Instead, she pretty much goes straight from drinking a coke that’s been dosed with acid to running away to Berkeley.  She spend several hundred words meticulously detailing an acid trip but she tells us very little about anyone that she goes to school with.  (And I have to say that, for someone who has just taken acid for the first time, she’s remarkably coherent and detailed when it comes to writing about her trip.)  She also includes a lot of statistics about how how many people her age are estimated to have experimented with drugs, which doesn’t doesn’t seem like the usual behavior of a 15 year-old addict.  It’s not something that I would have done at 15 and, trust me, I was a very smart 15 year-old.  (It’s vaguely like something you would expect to hear in an old sitcom.  “Can you believe it?  That child’s 15 years old and already hooked on speed.”  “Oh, honey, it’s not that unusual.  I was reading an article that said 40% of children under the age of 16 have tried some sort of narcotic substance.”)

Another thing that I found to be interesting about Go Ask Alice is how generous everyone was with their drugs.  Even after the narrator goes through rehab, her classmates still walk up to her and casually drop drugs in front of her.  Maybe it’s a generational thing but my experience in high school was the exact opposite.  At my high school, the few people who regularly had drugs tended to be pretty stingy with them.  They certainly weren’t going to waste any just to play a joke on someone.  (Indeed, I’ve never been able to relate to people who claim that people pressured them into trying drugs because, at my high school, everyone was too greedy to share.  “You want a hit off this joint?  This is mine, get your own!”)  But I guess that maybe in 1971, drugs were cheaper and people just had a more generous spirit.

Anyway, Go Ask Alice is a quick read and it fulfills the number one rule of successful propaganda: it takes it story to the worst possible conclusion, even though a less dramatic conclusion would have been more realistic and perhaps more effective.  From the minute you start reading the diary, you know that the diarist is going to end up dead of a drug overdose because that’s the type of story that Go Ask Alice is.  Over the course of a year, our narrator goes from being sweet and innocent to being dead because stories like this don’t work unless the narrator dies at the end.  Simply having the narrator write, “I did a lot of drugs and I wish I hadn’t but now I’m going try to rebuild my life,” just does’t carry the same punch as, “A week later, the writer of this diary was found dead of an overdose.”  Go Ask Alice understands the importance of embracing the melodrama and it does so fully.  As a result, it’s not as convincing as a realistic look at drug abuse would have been but it’s considerably more entertaining.

Go Ask Alice was a huge success when it was first published.  They even turned it into a movie, which can currently be viewed on YouTube and Prime.  Somewhat inevitably, William Shatner’s in it.   The movie is actually better than the book but you should read the book as well, if just to see what frightened your grandparents back in the day.