Tuesday, 20 September 2011

The Man from Planet X (1951)

I have extolled here plenty of times the beauties of the “theatre of the mind” aspect of cheap old sci-fi, and Edgar Ulmer’s The Man from Planet X is a near-perfect example of that idea. Shot on an incredibly low budget, it is nonetheless a bodied, intelligent, and richly stylised little mood piece, if you give yourself over to its dreamy evocations of perpetually misted Scottish moors where civilisations collide and gnomic bauhaus aliens stalk with ambiguous intent. Ulmer’s first encounter with the cinefantastique since his marvellously sepulchral The Black Cat (1935) has a similarly glutinous atmosphere of life on the edge of voids, as journalist John Lawrence (Robert Clarke) writes an account in a remote research station in an old Scottish castle, from which his friends and companions have disappeared, and he’s counting out the last hours before a fateful encounter. The nature of his predicament is then described in flashback: with a strange rogue planet entering the solar system and multiple UFO sightings seeming to congregate over northern Britain, a scientist, Professor Elliot (Raymond Bond), his daughter Enid (Margaret Field), and his assistant Dr Mears (William Schallert) have set up shop in that aforementioned castle, believing that when the planet comes closer to Earth that area will be the closest natural bridging point, and that’s the reason for the UFO influx. Elliot invites Lawrence to report on his investigations, and soon Elliot’s suspicions are confirmed when Lawrence and Enid discover first an alien atmospheric probe and then a proper landed space craft.

From out of the craft emerges the titular being, a diminutive, gravitationally distorted humanoid with a huge head, a bulbous helmet, and a vulnerable breathing system to survive on the new planet. After an initial encounter with the spacecraft’s mind-control ray, Elliot and Lawrence manage to make contact with its controller. Although he defensively waves a ray gun at them, Lawrence inspires his trust by saving his life when he can’t adjust his breathing control. The alien soon comes a-knocking at the castle, and Mears hits upon an idea of communicating with the alien through mathematics. Lawrence doesn’t trust Mears, however, with some good reason, as Mears has undefined criminal past that Lawrence believes he should have gotten twenty years in prison for. Mears hasn’t changed, either: he makes contact with the alien, but when nobody’s looking he manhandles him and toys with his air supply to dominate him, hoping to extract for purely personal benefit the alien’s scientific know-how. The alien flees and, angered, starts kidnapping and brainwashing locals, starting with the Elliots, Mears, and then taking men from the nearby town. Lawrence is left alone and alerts the local constable (Roy Engel). As it becomes clear that the alien’s project is designed to coincide with the planet’s passing and that he’s preparing a bridgehead for a mass influx, the army is called in, and Lawrence begs them for a chance to try and extract the prisoners before the alien’s craft is blown to bits.

This is a low-key film essayed in Ulmer’s usual intimate, peculiarly dreamy style. Like Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious, from the following year, The Man From Planet X is styled as if attempting to keep alive the spirit of the Expressionist cinema each director had been schooled in. This was their reflexive response to dealing with a low budget, by giving it that whiff of such stylisation, but it was certainly an ingrained aesthetic for both, and the effect in each film gives it a different sort of charge to their contemporary genre brethren, a permeable psychological and semi-mythic element. In Ulmer’s movie, his sustained atmosphere contrasts the generally more technocratic and hysterical mood of the ‘50s science fiction genre. Ulmer successfully builds a sense of the unknown and the oneiric in a sequence in which Enid, her car breaking down on the moor and, attracted by the mysterious flashing lights of the landed craft, first approaches it and catches sight of its misshapen occupant: here the distance between sci-fi, horror, and folk-myth seems to converge for a moment. The alien’s spaceship, a glowing orb, has an aspect of a fairy-tale witch’s abode as designed by a ‘30s modernist to it, situated in the midst of gnarled twisted trees and fog-smothered rocks, and pasteboard Scots settings, as if the alien landed by mistake in Welles’ Macbeth (1948). The creature itself looks like an animated Picasso with his huge cranium, exaggerated African mask eyes, and tiny slit mouth, inexpressive and yet polymorphous in his stylised humanity. The screenplay, by Aubrey Wisberg and Jack Pollexfen, is literate, a touch too literate, with the generally smart but stiff dialogue punctuated by some more serious lapses by having Enid, a scientist’s daughter and helpmate, speak a line like, “I’ve heard that one may tell how distant a storm is by the number of seconds between the lightning and the thunder, true?” But the film handles the humans’ first encounters with the alien with a believable sense of tentative, nervous curiosity and a reasonable, if not entirely liberal, solemnity and empathy. 

The no-name cast is headed by some competent if unexciting actors, with the exception of the on-target, quietly malevolent Schallert, and with some excruciating Scots accents in the lower-billed filling the set-bound Caledonian climes depicted throughout. But it’s Ulmer’s sense of how to do much with little that sustains the film. One of the earliest alien invader movies, coming also in the same year as The Day The Earth Stood Still and The Thing From Another World, The Man from Planet X stands between the two, neither portraying the alien as an avuncular bully or a savage beast, but instead allowing him to retain his actual alienness. He does not speak, his only forms of communication are gestural, and his motives are not entirely clarified. He seems amenable to friendship and reason, but it only takes a minimal act of violence to turn him off any kind of outreach. He still retains an empathic quality even as he haunts the moors like a futuristic hobgoblin and begins to disappear all and sundry, balling his fist in understandable rage when he escapes Mears’ grasp and decides to forego Close Encounter pleasantries and get on with his job. His job, it is revealed, anticipates Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976) in his desperation to save his dying, slowly freezing planet. That body comes sweeping in at the end like the herald of When Worlds Collide (1951), Ulmer offering vivid close-ups of his human faces turned towards heavenly apocalyptic lights, imbuing the film with a strong dose of that fin-de-siecle nervousness that gave the era’s sci-fi films their special quality. Meanwhile the theme of yokels disappearing and being subsumed into the alien project clearly looks forward to the likes of It Came From Outer Space (1953) and others. If the film’s limited action and final lack of truly driving drama in a more prosaic finale do dampen its impact and make it more an interesting rather than exciting artefact, it’s still an engaging and fascinating example of Ulmer’s capacity to make bricks without straw, and of the capacity of B-movie sci-fi to defy its often tacky and exploitative aura.


Dax said...

This is a great movie, and your review is spot-on. I don't know of an alien portrayal that was ambiguous in this time-frame...they are good (Day The Earth Stood Still), or totally bad (War of the Worlds). MFPX was more original in many ways.

Anonymous said...

The Man From Planet X was my first sci-fi movie as a child growing up in the 50s & 60s. Even at that young age it struck me as a little creepy but definitely quaint. Surprisingly, the spaceman strongly resembles our Governor Rick Scott of Florida both in appearance and in the long range agenda he has planned for his people. The spaceman was sent to initiate the take over of the Earth, and Gov Scott used his multimillion dollar self funded campaign with the endorsement of the Tea Party to buy his way into office only to slash public school spending, attempt to privatize every public institution possible, resist environmental protection of clean water, deregulate industries including nursing homes and assisted living facilities, castrate public sector influence, and suppress voter participation. If that doesn't sound like the start of a takeover of the Earth, then you might believe that the Earth is only 6000 yrs old and that man cohabited with dinosaurs. I also find it revealing that people who don't believe in evolution often remove the shiny metal logo AKA Darwin Fish for the legs sprouting it's body from vehicles belonging to people who do believe in it. These opponents of evolution think nothing of defacing other people's property but are outraged when anyone suggests any policy that would offend their privacy and protection of their perceived property rights. Their hypocrisy and lack of rational thought is astounding!