We love Warner Archive Instant and so should you! This week our Must Watch Warner Archive picks are all about digging deep into the dark side of human nature. Lon Chaney is a man obsessed with Joan Crawford and will go to any length necessary to have her (we mean any lengths) in Tod Browning’s The Unknown (1927), and Harry Belafonte is a black man in love with a white woman in post-apocalyptic New York in The World, The Flesh and The Devil (1959) … and Mel Ferrer doesn’t like it one bit.
What’s that you say? You don’t have a subscription to Warner Archive Instant. No excuse. The service offers a one month free trial, so get to it!
Carley’s Pick: The World, The Flesh and the Devil (1959)
“Why should the world have to fall apart to prove there’s nothing wrong with what I am!” So screams Harry Belafonte’s Ralph, a handsome young black man, to Inger Stevens’ Sarah, a beautiful blonde white woman, in the post-apocalyptic sci-fi drama The World The Flesh and the Devil. The Cold War world has annihilated itself and the only two survivors in New York (and as far as they are concerned the entire planet) is a black man and a white woman. The two have developed an undeniable love for each other, and Ingers is genuinely surprised at Belafonte’s refusal to give in to their mutual affection. His explanation is naked: “If you’re squeamish with words, I’m ‘colored.’ If you face facts, I’m a ‘negro.’ If you’re a polite Southerner I’m a ‘negra,’ and I’m a ‘nigger’ if you’re not.” The fact that race is still an issue, even in a world where race no longer exists, is what makes this film so fascinating, so startlingly relevant, and deserving of serious evaluation.
Ralph (Belafonte), a coal miner spared of nuclear fallout after having been stuck in a cave-in, is the only living man in New York. He sets about the task of ‘saving’ what he can of humanity: rescuing books from decaying libraries, artwork from museums, and rigging up generators to run electricity as well as powering a local radio station to put out daily broadcasts to anyone on earth who might still be out there. Sarah (Inger Stevens) is out there, and the two survivors become close friends. Suddenly both are filled with hope, and the deserted streets of Manhattan become a new home. (Belafonte even throws Ingers a birthday party at a swanky restaurant and gives her a gift from Harry Winston. Hey, it’s the end of the world, so why the hell not?) The possibility that the two of them will need to fulfill their physical duties as Adam and Eve is always on the table but never discussed outright. This is the fault of the studio which, in 1959, was quite squirmy with the concept of interracial relationships. But it’s of no concern: the issue is obvious. (In one scene, Belafonte gives Ingers a hair cut– she’s almost orgasmic about it, cooing him to ‘be brave.’)
Their chemistry is off the charts. Ingers wants to move in with Belafonte and, my god, who can blame her? (What gorgeous babies they’d have!) And then … virile Mel Ferrer enters the picture.
The addition of a white male survivor completely throws their strangely comfortable world off its course by bringing the subject of race squarely back to center court. Ingers and Ferrer ‘naturally’ pair off—picnics in the park, etc.—because in 1959 that’s what’s right. And Belafonte is still a casualty of that system, telling Ingers that he “wants” Ferrer to have her—even though he admit he is in love with her. But Ingers’ heart does not belong to Ferrer, and this knowledge drives Ferrer to a Neanderthal confrontation with Belafonte: claiming his property—the woman—in a dramatic showdown on the deserted streets of New York. (The fact the film was shot on location in Manhattan makes it all the more impressive: the bustling streets are realistically barren. I often found myself asking ‘how did they do that?’)
Ingers’ objectified role as a woman, also, does not escape scrutiny. Stuck in the middle of the triangle, Ingers remains a strong and opinionated woman who refuses to be told what to do. “I’m sick of you both,” she tells Ferrar, refusing to “have to decide” between the two men. The resolution is hopeful: an envelope-pushing shot (for 1959) of a black man’s hand holding a white woman’s, and the third man, the white man, joining hands with the two as they realize their destiny to bury the past and build a future.
The World The Flesh and The Devil is not without its flaws—which apocalyptic film isn’t? But unlike other entries in its genre, this film hasn’t aged a day because it asks that hard but necessary, brutal question: when the human race faces extinction, will its prejudices survive? And the film won’t age until that question is, if ever, answered.
(P.S: Yes. Harry Belafonte does get to sing. Which in itself is required viewing.)
Wade’s Pick: The Unknown (1927)
Cult silent and horror film director Tod Browning (he of Freaks, Dracula and a dozen Lon Chaney films) helmed what is quite possibly Chaney’s best film, The Unknown. I may not be a big Chaney fan, (all the melodramatic posing and gurning was always off-putting for me) but somehow it works in this uncomfortably chilling tale set in a carnival freak show that is both a powerful examination of obsession and a warning for how far someone may go to steal their true love’s heart.
A high concept storyline of ironic perfection, Chaney is Alonso the Armless, a performer who is adept at everything from throwing knives to lighting cigarettes with his feet. His secret, however, is he is a thief who successfully hides his identity by keeping his arms tied down under his robe. He is insanely in love with Nana ( a lithe and surprisingly sexy young Joan Crawford) his assistant. But she cannot stand to have a man’s arms surrounding her, and so finds solace in the armless hulk that is Alonso. She is pursued by Malabar the circus strongman, and she is attracted as well, but every time he touches her with his hands or arms, she recoils. (Messed up, huh? Wait, it gets more nuts).
To remove all suspicion that Alonso is a thief, and to seal the deal for his obsession, he decides to have his arms surgically removed. Now, truly handicapped, he is about to reveal the sacrifice he’s made for Nana when she excitedly tells him she’s gotten over her phobia and announces she and Malabar have wed. The reaction from Alonso, attempting to show happiness for her, but horrified, hysterical, laughing and crying, is the best argument for Chaney’s relevance, then and now. It’s one of the most horrible, and horribly satisfying moments in movie history.
But the film is not over and still has more shocks and irony to deliver. Never one to spoil the goods, I’ll leave the rest for your utter enjoyment. Do not wait for Halloween, stream The Unknown today!