Back in 1960, with the Cold War at its hottest, the end of the world seemed less like a vaguely disturbing distraction about a possible distant future than like a very real possibility – something that could happen tomorrow. That anxiety fuels THE LAST WOMAN ON EARTH, an odd-ball effort from producer-director Roger Corman, about the last three people left alive after the rest of Earth’s population mysteriously disappears, leading to the ultimate love triangle as the two men vie for the affections of the sole remaining woman. Filmed on a shoe-string, the film offers a low-budget apocalypse, too slowly paced to qualify as a good cult film, let alone a classic, and yet a certain aura of existential dread infuses the situation, offering some small redeeming value.
THE LAST WOMAN ON EARTH is an example of the cost-conscious Corman’s two-for-one economic strategy: on location in Puerto Rico to film BATTLE OF BLOOD ISLAND, Corman shot this film as well. Unfortunately, doubling down like this created some scheduling problems – namely the lack of a completed script. Unable to afford bringing the writer on location, Corman came up with a novel solution: hiring scripter Robert Towne (later an Oscar-winner for CHINATOWN) to play the film’s young lead, so that he could complete the screenplay at night when he wasn’t in front of the cameras. Town delivered the pages day by day, throughout the two-week shoot.
Said Corman of the production, “A lot of people see these films today and ask me if I knew I was being existential. No. I was primarily aware that I was in trouble. I was shooting with hardly any money and less time.” *
Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the results are less than satisfying. Despite the 71-minute running time, the story develops slowly, and THE LAST WOMAN ON EARTH often seems to be treading water. The script has a hood named Harold (Anthony Carbone) and his wife Evelyn (Betsy Jones-Moreland) hiding out in Puerto Rico, along with their lawyer Martin (Towne, under the pseudonym “Edward Wain”). After scuba diving, they surface to find the world mysteriously de-populated and guess that some kind of disaster temporarily destroyed the world’s oxygen supply, eradicating animal life from the planet’s surface. They survive by breathing through their SCUBA tanks until the local vegetion restores enough oxygen for them to breath normally. The struggle to survive is complicated when Evelyn and Martin fall for each other leading to a lethal confrontation…
Surprisingly, the low-key approach to the end of the world (no doubt dictated by the budget) is fairly effective, with the off-screen apocalypse offering an eerie mystery for the characters to solve. Shot in color and widescreen, THE LAST WOMAN ON EARTH presents a decent depiction of a depopulated world, realized on location with streets full of empty cars abandoned in the middle of the road.
By focusing on a love triangle, the script scales world annihilation down to the size of a soap opera, but at least the situation is fraught with dramatic potential so obvious that it needs no explanation to the audience: you know the two surviving men will inevitably challenge each other over the titular Last Woman on Earth. To some extent, the older Harold and the younger Martin battle things out in terms of a conflict between the Conservative Establishment and Rebellious Youth; this tends to make us side with Martin, but he turns out to be too pessimistic and self-centered to effectively overthrow the existing authority: he may not like following Harold’s orders, but he has no vision of his own to offer as an alternative.
The conflict ultimately leads to an ending that manages to work up a little genuine feeling, refusing to cop out with a happy resolution as the loser meets his fate in a church. This is one of those happy instances when an apparent mis-step pays off in its own way: none of the characters would likely be anyone’s nomination as a worthy survivor, and the thought of the entire world left in their hands is a depressing one indeed, driving home a sense of despair that might have been muted by the presence of likable heroes.
THE LAST WOMAN ON EARTH might have been a great half-hour episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE or even a good one-hour television drama. As a feature film, it falls short. Fortunately, it does have a few good things going for it – at least enough so that curiosity seekers will not feel that their time has been totally wasted.
THE LAST WOMAN ON EARTH (1960). Produced and directed by Roger Corman. Written by Robert Towne. Cast: Betsy Jones-Moreland, Antony Carbone, Robert Towne (as Edward Wain)
- Quoted in Ed Naha’s The Films of Roger Corman