The Last Woman on Earth (1960)
The Last Woman on Earth is a Roger Corman production, and as such is marked with cheapness in production values and cinematography, as well as lackluster acting throughout. The budget must have been in the low tens of thousands, and from what I've read, the cast and crew had just finished filming a larger movie and had a few days free so Corman rushed The Last Woman on Earth through with the money and time remaining. It certainly does look like the whole thing could have been filmed in under a week.
What is not lacking, however, is a strangely powerful story of the end of the world as we know it as seen through the eyes of a very small group of people. Such a small group, in fact, that there are just three (!) characters in this movie with speaking roles and through 85% of the movie they are the only one's who appear on camera. They are a man and his wife, and another man. Lets meet them now.
Highly successful but somewhat shady businessman Harold Gern is played by 33-year old bit-part actor Antony Carbone. Harold is your typical 1950s American businessman, alpha dog to the extreme and enjoying the good life of women, booze and gambling while making his money work for him. He's got a Frank Sinatra thing going with his hair.
His trophy wife Evelyn is played by 30-year old Betsy Jones-Moreland, a full-figured blonde woman with a drinking problem. She looks amazingly like Kathleen Turner or Cybill Shepherd, or maybe even Captain Janeway from Star Trek: Voyager (oh, please, you know you watched it, too, if for no other reason than to leer at Seven-of-Nine...). Evelyn is not happy with being an ignored wife, and has taken to the bottle to cope. She desperately loves Harold, though he barely knows she exists.
Harold's lawyer is Martin Joyce, played by 26-year old Robert Towne, a young man with floppish hair and an easy-going nature. Despite his gentle laugh, Martin is world-weary for someone so young, the gritty world of corporate law clearly wearing him down. As well as being one of the actors, Robert Towne is also the movie's scriptwriter, and would mature into one of the world's best such writers (legit Oscar win for Chinatown, plus nods for Shampoo, Greystoke, and The Last Detail).
Left to right: Martin, Evelyn, and Harold.
All three of them we first meet down on the sunny island of Puerto Rico, where Harold is on vacation (and also apparently hiding from the law in New York who have charged with him with fraud). Harold is down here gambling on cock fights and craps, drinking martinis and ogling girls. Evelyn is just drinking and trying to get Harold's attention every now and then. The lawyer Martin arrives last, to discuss legal matters with a disinterested and flippant Harold.
Evelyn's frustration with her inattentive husband is highlighted when we get a well-done Mrs. Robinson-moment as she tries to seduce Martin one night while sloshed. Martin is ever the gentleman and lets it pass, though you can tell he's drawn to this sexy older woman. It's this budding love-triangle that will drive the events of our movie, so this opening scene is important to remember.
Evelyn makes a move on Martin.
The next morning the three of them go out scuba diving in the warm Caribbean waters off San Juan. We get some underwater scenes here, as my Shark-o-Phobia meter pegs and I hide behind a pillow as my six-year old watches the scene and tells me when it's over (fuck you, stop laughing at me, sharks are evil spawns of Satan and they should all be destroyed).
They come up after nearly an hour or so to find a most amazing thing. There seems to be no oxygen in the air! It's only with their scuba tanks that they are able to survive. They reach the boat and find the local man who owned it dead from asphyxiation. They also find the air-breathing diesel engine dead and a box of matches useless, further pointing to a lack of oxygen.
In the water.
They take a dingy and row to shore. On the beach they stumble up to find the air still absent. They collapse in the green foliage of the jungle, certain that they are dead once their air tanks run dry. But most amazingly they soon find that they can breathe normally again! They think it might have to do with the plants "giving off oxygen" but they gloss over that pretty quickly. The plant angle is a lazy plot machination, forgotten and unnecessary, really. Just know that for whatever reason the oxygen is back, but it's too late for the rest of humanity.
They walk into San Juan to find it completely empty! The streets are filled with dead bodies and they wander through in a daze. The radio and television stations are all off the air, as are the phones, suggesting to them that what affected this part of the world hit everywhere. They find a running car, a brand new Cadillac, and drive to the Caribe Hilton where they were staying. There they hit the bar and finally have time to talk about what might have happened.
The dead streets of San Juan, check that awesome Beetle.
Martin suggests it was a "...bigger bomb, or an act of God...", either of which would work. The exact cause of the temporary oxygen loss is never explained, though it really doesn't need to be. I can remember the old theory proposed back in the early days of nuclear testing that a big enough nuke exploding in the atmosphere would cause a chain reaction that would strip away the air from the planet, so maybe that's what they were going for. But even that wouldn't explain why the oxygen seems to have "come back" like that. It's almost like in Spaceballs when the Mega Maid was sucking all the air from the planet Druidia, and it only survived because Lonestar used the Swartz to reverse the action from Suck to Blow.
Whiskey always kills the burn of the apocalypse.
Logically, they decide that staying in San Juan isn't the best long-term solution, as in a few days the stench from a half million rotting corpses will drive them out. So they load up the Cadillac and a panel van with canned food and supplies and drive out to the "tip of the island" where Harold knows of a friend's secluded villa.
While there, they strive to keep their stodgy 1950s sensibility as well as their wits. They keep well-dressed and groomed no matter what, always dressing up for dinner and never being caught without their hair combed and make-up on. All three of them also smoke cigarettes like there is no tomorrow, burning through pack after pack of unfiltered Camels and Lucky Strikes, buoyed by the knowledge that any global holocaust can be overcome with tobacco.
Dress shirts and ties are required for the dinner table.
They learn to sail a boat they find in the harbor, hoping to eventually leave Puerto Rico and return to the mainland USA. None are sure what to expect there, but the lack of radio or television signals from anywhere doesn't give them much hope of finding other survivors. To assist in the trip they all learn how to fish and cook, and fish becomes a major part of their diet.
Harold and Martin go fishing.
The beautiful tropical Puerto Rican setting becomes a fourth character after a while. The crashing surf, the lazily swaying palm trees, the bright white sunshine, all serve to further isolate our survivors, wrapping them in a pleasant, though just as desolate, cocoon of solitude. If they were in a harsher environment, they would have to concentrate more on external factors to survive, but here in the Caribbean, where food is plentiful and the weather perfect, they have the leisure time to dwell on their situation and let it eat at their souls.
Martin is the first to crack, which is not surprising. He doesn't show a quick precipitous plunge into mental ill-health, but more of a slow King George V descent into madness. Finally realizing that he's the odd-man-out at the party, and his romantic feelings for Evelyn growing by the day, Martin begins to loose his mind. He rightfully asserts that Harold's whole concept of "she's my wife, so hands off" doesn't really make much sense when there are only three of them alive and the survival of the species might be at stake.
For his part, Harold maintains that stubborn, egocentric view of the world that made him financially rich. He plans for the future, organizes time and activities to meet those goals and generally tries to keep his Old World focus in this crazy End Time. And he steadfastedly holds to his caveman marriage vows, even though he sees that Martin and Evelyn are getting closer. This will come to a head a some point, we can just see.
And that day is when Evelyn and Martin finally succumb to temptation and stress and fall into each other's arms in a day of passionate sex. This makes them both giddy and happy again, but also seals the fate of the threesome.
Martin and Evelyn share a moment on the beach.
When Harold finds out, which he inevitably does, he flies into a rage and he and Martin fight. The end result is that Harold banishes Martin from the villa, forcing him to leave the next morning.
Evelyn has become smitten with Martin, though her dislike of Harold has a lot to do with her change of heart, and decides to go with him. The morning Martin leaves in the Cadillac, Evelyn sneaks into the car and they roar off towards the docks. They are planning on taking the boat and heading off to the mainland to start anew.
Evelyn leaves Harold alone.
The problem is that neither asked Harold what his opinion was. Harold chases after them in the panel truck, catching up to them after Martin foolishly crashes the car on a dirt road and they have to walk.
The final confrontation takes place at the docks and up on the crumbling stone steps of a beautiful old Colonial Spanish seafort, the ocean pounding majestically in the background and the sun shining bright. These two guys seem to be really fighting each other, not just acting. Either they agreed to totally "sell the scene" beforehand, or there were some serious off-camera personality problems between the two of them, but which ever way, some legitimate punches are thrown here and there had to be a lot of bruises and scrapes both given and received. Kudos to them!
Harold and Martin duke it out.
Injured gravely, Martin dies in Evelyn's arms. Harold, too late, sees the error of his selfish ways and is genuinely dismayed at what he has become. Evelyn softens to him and they embrace. It's now just the two of them, maybe how it was always supposed to be, just Adam and Eve to repopulate the world.
Martin dies in Evelyn's arms, taking with him one third of the human race and one half the gene pool.
Ok, now that the movie is over, lets talk about survival rates. These three survived how? Because they were using scuba tanks for the relatively short period that the oxygen was "gone from the air". Fine, but who else would similarly survive? Obviously, any other scuba divers across the world, which at any given moment must be a large number. Plus anyone working in other toxic environments above water requiring air tanks, from the firefighter working that blaze in Chicago to the guy cleaning out that huge oil tank in Uzbekistan. You'd also have people in underground bunkers and bases with their own air supply. And maybe even old people in nursing homes on oxygen? The largest number of survivors might be the crews of the numerous submarines plying the world's oceans on that fateful morning. The downside to this is that, especially in 1960, the sub crews would be almost uniformly male, meaning that those few female scuba divers that survived would most certainly never have to sit by the phone waiting for a date.
Written in February 2008 by Nathan Decker.
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that's between you and the vengeful wrath of your personal god...