The first thing to note about 1964's The Last Man on Earth, the first successful attempt to film Richard Matheson's I Am Legend (Hammer Films attempted to adapt the film only a couple of years after the novel was published, but their treatment proved too controversial even for that studio; thus was it passed on to the Italians, those grand producers of quick, inexpensive, smutty horror), is that co-writer Logan Swanson does not in fact exist. "Logan Swanson" was the one-time pseudonym of none other than Richard Matheson himself, hired to adapt his novel before he was gently replaced. So angry was Matheson at the deviations from his original book that he demanded his name be removed from the credits.

There's more than a little irony in Matheson's pique, given that The Last Man on Earth is unquestionably closer to the source than any of the subsequent films. Like the novel, it begins (in 1968, setting the plague not much after the movie's release; the book sets it 20 years down the road) with a man cleaning up the aftermath of what seems to be a violent attack right on his front lawn, loading dead bodies into his truck and driving them out to a giant pit of fire, passing several other bodies along the way. What are they doing there? What has happened to leave Robert Morgan (Vincent Price) so casual about all of this? (They changed his name from Robert Neville, for no earthly reason. I assume that one of the producers had an ex-wife named Neville, or something).

So there's a good long passage where we see Robert Morgan going about his daily business, and it's so close to perfection that I want to cry. Imagine this as a silent film: we see a man walking around, burning corpses, nailing fresh garlic to his front door, securing the barricades on his windows, and so forth, and for a very long time we have no real knowledge of what is going on. Then the first night comes, and Morgan is tormented by zombie vampires, led by his former colleague Ben Cortman (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart), and that is the first time we hear sound. Isn't that a hell of a bold way to start up a movie? Sort of like Tarkovsky making a cheapie genre flick? Because that's not The Last Man on Earth. This movie instead has a very insistent string-heavy score by Paul Sawtell and Bert Shefter, and virtually constant voiceover in the first twenty minutes. And it's not even good voiceover; it's the most banal possible stuff for a post-apocalypse film, Vincent Price musing things like "I'll get those bodies later," "Good, it's still fresh," and the like. It's still not spelled out for us, but it's incredibly annoying now. I played a little game: watch the first act with the sound turned off. It made the film significantly better.

So far, so much like the novel, too much like the novel in the case of the voiceover. But there are differences, small ones mostly, and they consistently weaken the film: like making Morgan a medical doctor who was previously part of the team trying to develop an antibody to the vampire bacteria. It strips away the lengthy sequence in the book of Neville building his theory about the disease bit by bit, a sequence that was probably unfilmable; but given that the finished film just gives us all the book's scientific conclusions in one thick block of narration, "filmable" wasn't a major consideration in the film's scripting.

The biggest differences come at the end, when the last man on Earth meets the last woman, a nervous young lady named Ruth (Franca Bettoia). The way this plays out, and the way that Morgan learns that he's been killing the wrong sorts of vampires, are much more visual than the way the book had it, and at the same moment much less suspenseful. The end comes rather fast, with most of the film's plot occurring in the last 30 minutes. It's rather structurally warped, actually: the second act is largely taken up with a long flashback that mercifully saves us from the voiceover, although it also presents as bland facts things that the book treated as mysteries. Then the third act falls over itself in an attempt to wrap things up quickly.

Where the film fails as a narrative - and it fails rather mightily in places - it succeeds as a mood piece. Director Sidney Salkow's career was relentlessly unnoteworthy - a lot of TV westerns in the decade running up to this film - and nothing about The Last Man on Earth suggests that he was some kind of lost master of the horror genre, but within its extremely modest scope it does quite a few things very nicely. In particular, the interiors are all both bland and claustrophobic, not "threatening" so much as "suffocating," and it's in this way that the true agony of being the last man on Earth is made clear to us. The mores of the times meant that the meat of Matheson's novel - the sickness Morgan/Neville feels at killing people that turns into a sort of banal workaday mindset, and the psychosexual anguish he feels every time he sees a woman - had to be cut out, and Salkow does a good enough job at latching onto what remains: the frustration at feeling trapped inside the same four walls for all time, hearing the muffled taunts of Death just outside.

The few scenes that are played for scares work, particularly the film and novel's emotional centerpiece, in which Robert's wife, dead in the plague, comes back for him. The film has to be less explicit, but it makes up for this in a truly excellent use of sound, the woman's cries of "let me in" just barely audible over the wind. Throughout, the use of lighting calls to mind the Universal films of the '30s and from thence the German films of the '20s, and while nothing is all that frightening about them, they're surely very brooding and Gothic.

All in all, though, it's Price's film. He's not an actor who hardly ever comes across as subtle, and I almost can't bring myself to say it about him; but it's true. Even with all the purple lines of narration, he never drifts into his customary broadness, and the simple way he carries his body, constantly slumped over, with massive, craggy bags under his eyes, brings out the constant weariness of Morgan's life far more than all the overly-expository dialogue in the world could ever hope. The few times that he does lash out, it's the rich and plummy tones that we know and love from the actor, but something much nastier and animalistic - fitting the film's idea that Morgan, in trying to retain his human-ness, has been forced to renounce his humanity. It's Prices' great performance, close to the best in his career, that pushes the movie from decent horror for its day to being a straight-up classic.

(For more thoughts on I Am Legend, the book and the films based on it, head over here)