I was a little dubious about seeing Roger Corman’s Last Woman on Earth. He did an earlier end-of-the-world movie, The Day the World Ended, which I didn’t much care for. That was however one of his earliest efforts. By 1960 he’d become very proficient indeed in the art of interesting low-budget film-making. And Last Woman on Earth is actually not bad at all!
Even by Corman standards Last Woman on Earth is low budget. So how do you do a science fiction film with no money at all for special effects or action sequences? Well, you can always focus on the characters, and on how they respond to extraordinary events. To do this of course you need a decent writer. Once again Corman’s knack for spotting talent came to his rescue. As screenwriter he had a young guy named Robert Towne. Yes, that Robert Towne. The man who wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for Polanski’s Chinatown.
The basic idea is that a crooked American businessman (Harold Gern) is in Cuba, having had to leave the US temporarily because of some small misunderstanding with the Justice Department. He’s with his wife Evelyn and his young hot-shot lawyer Martin. Towne, in one of his rare acting roles, plays the lawyer himself. While they’re scuba diving the end of the world happens. Since they were safely underwater when it happened, they survive. They are, as far as they know, the only survivors.
In a post-apocalyptic movie you expect the survivors to spend lots of time debating the best strategies for rebuilding civilisation. These three don’t do any of that. Civilisation is gone. They just want to survive. They set up housekeeping in a large beach house, lay in a stock of canned food and teach themselves to fish. It’s almost idyllic. Except for one problem. And it’s a much bigger problem than the end of civilisation. There are three remaining members of the human species. There are two men - but there’s only one woman! And Evelyn was already trying to seduce young Martin even before the world ended. You just know things are going to get a little tense.
Towne and Corman use the situation not just to create a love triangle, but to set up a conflict between two incompatible world-views. Harold is a man of action, a self-made man. He’s used to getting what he wants. He’s not going to let a minor setback like the end of the world stop him, and he’s not going to brood about it. Martin is a man of ideas, civilised and melancholy, pessimistic and cynical. Evelyn is attracted to both men, but mostly she’s attracted to Martin because he’s the man she doesn’t have. His attitude towards life fascinates her. He doesn’t treat her like a possession. And he’s vaguely cute.
While the acting is typical B-movie acting the movie has Towne’s literate script and Corman’s keen sense of pacing, not to mention sexual tension in abundance, to keep things from getting boring. And the ending isn’t quite what you’re expecting. Post-apocapylpse movie are not my thing, but this is one of the more interesting examples of the breed. I liked it.