I made what I'd consider a remarkable discovery this evening, and I thought I'd share it here.
Over the course of the summer, while my wife and kids have been out of town, I've been catching up on my film-watching. Last night, I'm ashamed to say, I finally caught up with seeing Susan Seidelman's "Smithereens" from 1982. I was going to write up something about that this evening, but was stuck by something frankly more noteworthy.
Purely by accident, while searching for some stills from Seidelman's film, I caught a glimpse of a shot from a different movie that totally struck me. It looked like a man standing in the middle of Fifth Avenue surrounded by desolation. I started connecting the dots, and learned that it was a Cold War-era film from 1959 staring Harry Belafonte called, cryptically, "The World, The Flesh and The Devil." I was immediately intrigued.
My parents had a couple of Harry Belafonte records when I was growing up, so I certainly know who he is. In more recent years, he's become a tirelessly outspoken champion of civil rights, and kind of a badass in that capacity. But I wasn't really that aware of his acting career, least of all in an ersatz sci-fi endeavor like this one.
Vividly recalling later films like "Omega Man" and the WIll Smith vehicle "I Am Legend," "The World..." finds Belafonte portraying a miner who gets mysteriously trapped in a cave-in. After several days, he manages to dig himself out, only to find the world drastically changed. While he'd been trapped, there's been some sort of apocalyptic cataclysm, and absolutely no one else is around.
He makes his way to New York City, and, in fairly short order, he gleans that while he was trapped in the mine, the world has suffered a global nuclear conflict, and all the cities have been evacuated. He becomes, quite literally, the only living boy in New York ... or so he thinks (c'mon, you knew that twist was coming).
After a while, Belafonte tires of being desperate and quickly turns resourceful, finding a way to power up a building and restore electricity to the proceedings. After some silly bits, the film starts to get a bit overwrought, although you can't fault Belafonte for doing his best. Suffice to say, he soon finds a couple of other people, but things get complicated after that. There then unspools a well-intentioned albeit clunky subtext about race relations and taboo sexual tension, but it's mighty bold for 1959. Unfortunately, however, it devolves into a racially charged, murderous love triangle saga.
Though essentially an extended "Twilight Zone" episode, the solitude that permeates in the beginning of the film swiftly become convincingly claustrophobic. But what makes this film so striking for me are the on-location shots of Manhattan. The first quarter of the movie is largely relegated to scenes of Harry shouting "HELLO, IT'S ME" through the echoey expanse of countless, empty Manhattan streets.
We're treated to beautiful footage of Battery Park, Wall Street, Madison Square and lower Fifth Avenue (Harry walks right by the Horn & Harrdart that is now the tony Lebanese restaurant, Ilili). The shots of abandoned midtown, Times Square and a rain-soaked and deserted Herald Square are stunning in their execution.
Ultimately, I wanted a little bit more from the film (and a little bit less of the love-triangle plot line), but it's still worth checking out if you have the opportunity.