(director/writer: Ranald MacDougall; screenwriter: based on the novel The Purple Cloud by M.P. Shiel & the story “End of the World” by Ferdinand Reyher; cinematographer: Harold J. Marzorati; editor: Harold F. Kress; music: Miklos Rozsa; cast: Harry Belafonte (Ralph Burton), Inger Stevens (Sarah Crandall), Mel Ferrer (Benson Thacker); Runtime: 95; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: George Englund/Sol C. Siegel/Harry Belafonte; MGM; 1959)

“According to this film racism is a bigger problem than even nuclear warfare.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Ineffective sci-fi film that attempts to deal with racism and atomic destruction, but is too cautious to deal with either topic except as a tease. It’s basically a showcase for Harry Belafonte (Hollywood’s star Negro actor at the time, whose production company backed the film) and an early attempt by Hollywood to deal with an interracial romance, something it sets up but doesn’t have the nerve yet to deal with it squarely. It’s based on the prophetic 1902 novel The Purple Cloud by M.P. Shiel and the story “End of the World” by Ferdinand Reyher, and written and directed by Ranald MacDougall.

Negro Pennsylvania mining engineer Ralph Burton (Harry Belafonte) emerges from being trapped in a collapsed coal tunnel for five days by digging his way out to discover there are no people above ground. Ralph catches the newspaper headlines that say “U.N. Retaliates for Use of Atomic Poison” and “Millions Flee from Cities! End of the World.” He takes a car to NYC and for the film’s first 45-minutes he wanders alone through an eerily deserted Manhattan as he tries to keep sane by singing to himself and conversing with department store mannequins while he sets himself up in a luxury building by turning on the generator and hooking up a shortwave radio. Ralph frets he might be the only person alive in the world, and learns further from a recording of a broadcast that a war started when a rogue nation began using radioactive isotopes to poison the world. So far so good, then he meets white woman Sarah Crandall (Inger Stevens), who has been following him for weeks but only approaches him when she thinks he committed suicide when he threw a mannequin out of his window. Upon meeting the Negro the repressed blonde acts in a stiff way, with the highlight of their prickly relationship being when she insists Ralph give her a haircut then she takes digs at him for cutting her hair like it was grass. They live in separate apartment buildings, but when Sarah suggests she move into his building to make it easier to fix up one building instead of two, he pungently says that people might talk. Ralph keeps busy so he won’t go nuts and spends much time when not tinkering around the house rescuing books from the 42nd Street Library after its roof caved-in, and advises Sarah to also keep busy. She fires back saying she is “free, white and 21” and will do as she pleases. Ralph becomes upset at the unintended but nevertheless racial slur, and is further upset when she talks about love and marriage. He reminds her that he is “colored.” Gradually they begin to overcome the racial divide and become friendly, as he throws her a birthday party. But things take a new twist when survivor number three, Ben Thacker (Mel Ferrer), is rescued on his boat by Ralph in the East River and nursed back to health by Sarah. Ralph gives Ben a clear path to Sarah despite being in love with her, but Ben soon thinks it’s a devious plan to make him look noble in her eyes. Sarah can’t decide which man she prefers, though the film goes out of the way to make Ralph look like a saint and the wealthy married family man Ben like a sexual predator. When Ben sees he’s losing his white woman, he challenges Ralph to a rifle shootout. But when Ralph refuses to fight, Sarah grabs each of their hands and the three stroll down Broadway together in an optimistic depiction of harmony.

To say that the ending was a cop-out, corny, asexual and wishy-washy liberalism, is also to say how dramatically unconvincing it was and left us very little that was provocative to think about except according to this film racism is a bigger problem than even nuclear warfare. It also smacked of being unreal because Belafonte never gets to even kiss Stevens. The idea was interesting, but not much was done with it and when survivors start popping up at the midway point it soon runs out of energy and all we’re left with is risible dialogue.