[September 13, 1960] On the beach… again (The Last Woman on Earth)

from here

I understand that the movie-house biz isn’t doing so well.  Looking through my trade magazines, I found some pretty alarming statistics.  During the War, Americans spent about a quarter of their recreation budget on movies.  Now, we spend just 5% in the cinemas.  Movie revenues are down a third, from $1.4 billion to $950 million.  Only half as many films are coming out this year as did during the War–200 versus 400.

The causes of film’s decline aren’t too hard to discern.  Television is free and constant.  More homes have air conditioning.  Going to the movies isn’t such an event anymore. 

Not that the film parlors haven’t tried.  Cinescope.  Cinerama.  Aroma-rama!  Double features.  Drive-in viewing.  Nothing’s working.

Well, never let it be said that the Journey shirks its civic duty.  Thus it was that the Traveller and his family all went to see the Roger Corman double-feature at the local movie palace.

Yes, you heard right.  They billed a Corman B-movie with…another Corman B-movie!  Boy are we gluttons for punishment.  Actually, the experience wasn’t so bad.  We’d heard that his Little Shop of Horrors was a clever little comedy, and we weren’t disappointed. 

But that’s getting ahead of ourselves, for Shop was the second feature on the billing.  Number one was:

The Last Woman on Earth

This is a post-apocalyptic film, a genre that is booming these days.  In Woman, some sort of bomb or act of God momentarily destroys all free oxygen in the atmosphere, killing humanity and most of Earth’s animal life. A crooked billionaire, his beautiful and disillusioned wife, and his nebbishy young attorney manage to survive the end of the world thanks to some timely scuba diving off the coast of Puerto Rico. 

In the first 15 minutes of the movie, we get to meet the three protagonists as they are in the civilized world.  Harold is a rich cynic who takes nothing very seriously, including his wife.  He spends much of his life drinking, gambling, and making his fortunes.  Martin is Harold’s lawyer.  His defining trait seems to be caution.  And then we have the lovely Evelyn, who is tired of being ignored, tired of being kept at arm’s length from her new husband.  She makes a pass at Martin in just the second scene, though it’s hard to see what the attraction is, other than convenience.

Then comes the disaster.  The characters emerge from the water and take in lungfuls of air that do not satisfy.  Matches don’t light.  Engines don’t catch.  When the trio gets back to town, everyone is suffocated.  It’s really quite nicely done.

The three take refuge at a swank residence with enough food and booze to last months, if not years.  Sounds idyllic… except Harold is a rolling stone, a man of action.  He worries about disease and wants to look for other survivors.  What made him venal and dirty in the old world makes him a natural leader in the new one.  One can’t help but like him.

Except Martin doesn’t much like him.  Under the new conditions, Martin sees no reason to follow the driven Harold..  And Evelyn sees the catastrophe as a sort of liberation, a chance to start anew.  With Martin.

Martin and Evelyn consumate an affair, and Harold exiles his attorney from their little paradise.  Martin leaves…with Evelyn, and the pair plan to steal Harold’s yacht and make for Florida.  But Martin is not really a rebel–more of a depressive.  His basic pessimism and lassitude become evident when he rejects Evelyn’s suggestion that they start a family, and she starts to have second thoughts about their relationship. 

Then Harold shows up, and we are treated to a long chase and fight scene in which Harold mortally wounds Martin.  This leaves Harold and Evelyn a couple by default, if a rather shaky one.

I like dramas in a bottle, and I like post apocalyptic stories.  This one had its issues, however.  It’s not so much bad as it is disappointing. The film sort of fizzles out halfway and never does much with its material.  It doesn’t help that two of the three characters aren’t very likable, and the fellow who plays Martin isn’t much of an actor.  The ending is a letdown, too; I think it would have been more compelling if Harold had let the others go, with Evelyn ultimately returning to her husband. 

Of course, the real issue is that this movie has been done before, and better: The World, The Flesh, and The Devil

But, if nothing else, it is a lovely film.  Corman makes expert use of the local scenery: beaches, forest, a coastal fort.  I can only imagine that he had other business on the island.  There’s no way he’d have the budget to head out there otherwise! 

Stay tuned for Little Shop of Horrors in a couple of days…

16 thoughts on “[September 13, 1960] On the beach… again (The Last Woman on Earth)”

  1. Well said. This is a film with a lot of potential, but we’ve seen it before and done better. Like some other Corman films, there’s more than you might expect from a B-movie, but not that much more this time. A little digging in the trades and I see that the actor who played Martin (billed as Ed Wain) also wrote this piece (credited as Robert Towne). Seems to be his first turn at both. Perhaps if he focuses on one or the other he might develop into someone who’s pretty good at what he does.

    Frankly, I don’t think television is to blame for the problems that the movie theaters are having. Looking at war-time statistics is problematic, since there wasn’t a lot else for people to spend their entertainment dollars on. Sure, almost 90% of households have TVs, but I don’t think you can really compare watching dancing cigarette cartons on a tiny little screen with seeing a movie on the big screen. I think the real problem is the product those theaters are selling. Let’s face it, most of what comes out are schlocky B-movies or the same old same old war movies, westerns, and love stories. Hollywood needs to improve its game and people will come back to the cinema.

    1. Have you seen the new Hitchcock film “Psycho,” released a few days ago?  I hesitate to say anything about it (except to note that it’s based on a novel by Robert Bloch, who writes at least as many suspense shockers as he does science fiction stories) because you need to see it without knowing anything about the story to experience the full impact of it.  Suffice to say that it tests the limits as to what you can get away with in American movies.  I suspect that it will either be strongly condemned or else it will be very influential.

      1. Oh yes. A brilliant film. It’s getting mixed reviews, but I think it’s going to be hugely influential and considered a classic. I don’t know if it really tests as many limits of what can be done as you think, though. Hitchcock is a master at convincing viewers they’ve seen things that aren’t actually on the screen. Seriously, some of those boundary-pushing things you think you saw, watch it again while staying removed from the story and you’ll see it’s all implied.

  2. Considering how inbred the kids will be by the third and fourth generation (even if she had a child by Martin), I think Martin quite right.

    1. Agreed. These “new Adam and Eve” stories (and I’ve been running into a lot of them recently!) all suffer from the same issue as the original — they’re fine as allegory, but if you ask me to take them seriously, I bounce off the biological problem. Two people, or even 3 or 4, are not enough to make a viable gene pool.

  3. I’ve seen The World, The Flesh and The Devil several times since the 1960s, but haven’t seen The Last Woman on Earth. I see it’s available through Amazon Prime, so I’ll try and watch it soon.

    If you time travel to my time, there’s a movie preview going around that seems to have a similar plot. Why is it always a three-some at the end of the world?

    1. Hello, Jim!  We should set up a two-way portal.  We can split the electricity bills…

      As for three-somes, isn’t it funny that Love Triangles are, contrary to what geometry teaches us, the least stable of shapes?

  4. I really, really hate the “love triangle resolved by the death of one of the suitors” trope. Hate it with the passion of a thousand flaming suns. Most of the time, it’s a cheap and lazy way for the writer to get out of having written himself into a corner, where the suitor who’s supposed to win is actually not the one best suited to the third party, as in South Pacific.

  5. [curmudgeon_mode=ON]

    Looked like a badly-done love triangle done by a producer who thought “Gee, we can do it cheaper if we write a bunch of supporting characters out of the story!”

    The only “SF” thing about it is that it happens after an apocalypse.  Woo-hoo.  Bah!  Humbug!

    [curmudgeon_mode=OFF] … [OFF] … danged switch, stuck again…

  6. Nah, it’s just “pseudocode” from the Data Processing class.  We use it to describe algorithms before writing the programs out in machine code.  There are only a handful of targets for the FORTRAN compiler, plus it’s quite expensive… and, really, while there’s some use for it in the engineering fields, it’s more or less a toy as far as data processing goes.  Real data processing means hand-coding every bit of software to sort insurance records or calculate sewage bills as quickly as possible, because every clock cycle costs money.

    We’re studying some FORTRAN, but the school doesn’t have a compiler or a machine that can run it.  Some of the more expensive schools do, but it’s not like you can simply dial one of their machines up and talk to it on the phone.  It’d be busy 24/7 anyway.

    The War Department, or Department of Defense as they like to be called nowadays, has come up with a competitor for FORTRAN called COBOL, which sounds like one of those answers for a question nobody was asking.  COBOL is going to solve problems we didn’t even know we had, apparently.  But it’s going to take at least another full generation of hardware development and many financial VPs weeping tears over purchase orders before we see any of that.

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