Sunday, July 29, 2018

Last Woman on Earth (Filmgroup/American International, 1960)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s Vintage Sci-Fi film screening in Golden Hill ( was of two movies that made an obvious double bill because of the similarity of their titles: Last Woman on Earth (1960) and The Last Man on Earth (1964). Last Woman on Earth was produced and directed by Roger Corman for American International Pictures in association with his own company, Filmgroup (one word, though an Allied Artists TV reissue spelled it as “Film Group”), and was based on a script by Robert Towne — who was also in it, more on that later. Towne went on to a distinguished career as a writer and a less distinguished one as a director — his best known credit was probably the screenplay for Chinatown (though he wrote an at least partially happy ending and director Roman Polanski changed it to a nihilistic one, much to Towne’s disgust), and he’s one of the many talents both in front of and behind the camera who went from a Corman apprenticeship to a major career. Last Woman on Earth was apparently a project Corman threw together because he was already organizing a location trip to Puerto Rico to shoot Creature from the Haunted Sea and he wanted to get the most bang for his buck while there by making a second film — the way he would allow Francis Ford Coppola to shoot his first film, Dementia 13, with the same cast and crew as his own production The Young Racers; and why he would squeeze two days’ extra work out of Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson by finishing the 1963 version of The Raven early so he could make another film with them, The Terror. 

 It helped that Towne’s plot features only three on-screen (live) human characters: New York financier Harold Gern (Anthony Carbone), his wife Evelyn (Betsy Jones Moreland) and his tax attorney Martin Joyce. The performance of the actor playing Joyce is credited to “Edward Wain,” but that was actually a pseudonym for … Robert Towne. It seems that he hadn’t yet finished the film by the time Corman and his crew were set to leave for Puerto Rico, so Corman had to bring him along so he could finish the script on the spot. Rather than pay for two people to come to Puerto Rico, Corman decided to save plane fare and living expenses for one by drafting Towne to play the part himself. Like Blake Edwards in Frank Wisbar’s 1940’s “B” Strangler of the Swamp, Towne’s performance proves that his real talent lay in writing, not acting. It also is an early indication of the flaw that would sink a lot of Towne’s later major productions: a gift for pseudo-profundity which led him to write things that pretend to intellectual sophistication but really don’t achieve it. One suspects that Corman told Towne, “Write me an Ingmar Bergman script — only make sure I can slap an exploitation title on it so I can sell it to the drive-ins.” 

What Towne came up with was a profoundly uninteresting romantic triangle between Harold, Evelyn and Martin that turns into a post-apocalyptic movie when, vacationing on Puerto Rico while Harold’s latest IRS investigation gets sorted out, Harold takes Evelyn and Martin deep-sea diving with SCUBA gear — and while they’re underwater a sudden interruption in Earth’s oxygen supply takes place, just long enough to wipe out all other humans and land-based animal life. They come to life but keep breathing through their diving masks until they realize that whatever happened to the air that annihilated the rest of humanity is over and they can once again breathe safely — and the rest of the plot deals with Harold’s attempts to lord it over the other two and insist that Evelyn doesn’t have sex with Martin even though she’s been clearly restive in her trophy-wife status and genuinely attracted to him. The main problem with this film is that the three people are relentlessly uninteresting and we really don’t like any of them. We also don’t understand why Evelyn would want to commit adultery with Martin other than proximity and Robert Towne the writer’s scriptorial fiat to give Robert Towne the actor a chance to make it on screen with a hot babe. At the end Harold and Martin start fighting over Evelyn, who’s waiting in a deserted church for one of these men to take her and run off with her — we get the impression by then that she really doesn’t care which one — they have a fight scene that mostly takes place in the water before Harold is finally fatally injured and Martin and Evelyn face an uncertain future as a would-be Adam and Eve.

It’s possible Corman could have improved this film greatly if he’d been willing to pay salary, expenses and travel for an actual actor to play Martin, and it’s pretty clear whom that should have been: the young Jack Nicholson, who was under contract to Corman at the time and could have brought an explosive romantic and sexual intensity to the character that clearly eluded the writer playing him. One other interesting thing about Last Woman on Earth is it was shot in color — I think this is the first time Corman shot a film in color — though the extant public-domain videos all stem from a badly faded 16 mm print in which the dominant colors are yellow and brown. (This was also largely what happened to the American International production we’d screened the night before, Queen of Blood — was there a dark corner of the AIP vaults where the climactic conditions were just right to fade films in this particular way?) With three uninteresting people enacting hackneyed situations and totally missing the potential for an end-of-the-world film (I kept thinking these three couldn’t possibly have been the only people SCUBA diving at the time the world briefly lost its oxygen supply, and Last Woman on Earth would have been a far more interesting — and, alas, expensive — movie to make if we’d met some of them), and the extant print looking quite murky and dull (though at least it does full justice to Betsy Jones Moreland’s red hair!), Last Woman on Earth is yet another bad film in which one senses a good film struggling inside it to get out.