Eye For Film >> Movies >> The Last Man On Earth (1964) Film Review
The Last Man On Earth
Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode
It has been adapted for the screen at least five times to date (and was reputedly also an inspiration for Night Of The Living Dead) but Richard Matheson's hit 1954 science fiction novel I Am Legend has only once been adapted by the author himself, and that was for this 1964 offering starring Vincent Price. He had produced screenplays for the actor before - The Pit And The Pendulum, The House Of Usher, Master Of The World and The Raven - and the two seemed naturally suited to working together. Well established as a player of scholarly roles with a hint of madness, Price fits the original character of this story better than anyone else. The Last Man On Earth doesn't stick precisely to the narrative found in the novel but it very much captures its spirit.
Price plays Dr Robert Morgan, though whether or not he needs a name is debatable - it's a long time since there has been anyone around to address him by it. Having lost his beloved wife (something of habit for Price's characters in the period) and his daughter to the mysterious epidemic that swept the planet, he spends his days stalking the local area, killing the creatures that some humans turned into whilst they are asleep. By night he hides away in his home lest they find and kill him. Then one day, on a lonely hillside, he encounters a woman. Stunned by the realisation that he is not alone, he cannot bear to lose sight of her, so forcibly takes her home. There he discovers that she is infected like the others but, unlike them, has retained her senses. If he can cure her, might he be able to cure others, to restore the human race?
Naturally, the imprisoned Franca (Ruth Collins) isn't too happy about this, but there's something strange about her behaviour that suggests she may not be quite as helpless as she seems, and Robert may be facing a new kind of danger. Furthermore, their conversations reveal that those altered by the plague are not all the mindless zombies he thought. Some of them can think, and plan, and have built their own kind of civilisation - and their perspective on his actions is very different from his own.
There are some details here which, though they may once have carried a certain mythic weight, now come across as silly. Robert's use of garlic to fend off his foes, for instance, jars with the much more serious tone of other parts of the film. There are also pacing issues, especially in the stretch between the establishment of his situation and his discovery of Franca. Price's commitment to building up the character of this damaged man in a believable way means that, though sympathetic, he is not initially easy to engage with. It takes time for us to appreciate the depth of his emotions. This means that parts of the film feel rather dry, though by the end his performance is compelling.
Made at a time when expectations of female characters in genre films were in a state of flux, The Last Man On Earth extends the central message of I Am Legend - that whether the killing Robert carries out is heroic or villainous depends on one's point of view - and extends it to his treatment of Franca. Other films of the era routinely saw women's concerns overridden by men presented as having their best interests at heart. Here, we are invited to understand Franca's resentment of what happens to her. The fact that she develops sympathy for Robert despite this makes the film's resolution much more powerful. The age of man, it seems, is well and truly coming to an end.Reviewed on: 11 Nov 2018