Sunday, July 19, 2015

Stranger from Venus (Rich & Rich Productions, Princess Pictures, Vitapix, 1954)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night the “Vintage Sci-Fi” series entry was a double bill containing an acknowledged masterpiece plus a clumsy “B” movie with virtually the same plot and even one of the same stars. The masterpiece was the 1951 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still, directed by Robert Wise from a screenplay by Edmund H. North that, while ostensibly an adaptation of a 1940 magazine story by Harry Bates called “Farewell to the Master,” was largely original. All North took from Bates was the basic idea of a spaceship landing in the middle of the Capitol Mall in Washington, D.C. with a two-entity crew: a living male named Klaatu and his robot assistant, Gort (“Gnut” in Bates’ original story but obviously changed to give the actors something easier to pronounce — perhaps Scandinavians would have had no trouble saying “Gnut” but the Americans, along with Britisher Michael Rennie in the lead, would have found it too much of a mouthful), land their spaceship on the White House lawn. Klaatu is shot almost as soon as he lands but is eventually revived by Gort/Gnut, though only temporarily, and about the only specific scene from Bates’s story that North put into his script was one in which, to immobilize him, the U.S. military decides to encase him in high-tech plastic — which he gets out of by heating his body temperature so high it melts. I’ve loved The Day the Earth Stood Still since I first saw it in the 1960’s on the old NBC Saturday Night at the Movies program, and I still do — not even the mediocre remake from 2008 with Keanu (The Matrix Man) Reeves as Klaatu could dim the beauty of the incandescent original — and by showing the other movie on his double bill, a 1954 British production called Stranger from Venus, right after The Day the Earth Stood Still the organizer of the showing made Stranger from Venus seem even worse than it was. Not only did the writers of Stranger from Venus, Desmond Leslie (“original” story) and Hans Jacoby (script), blatantly rip off The Day the Earth Stood Still, they even cast the same leading actress, Patricia Neal, as the interlocutor between the visiting alien and the earth authorities. In the opening scene she plays a tourist driving through a remote area of England (in a Cadillac with its steering wheel on the left side, American-style — though she’s driving on the left side of the road, correct for the U.K., her car is set up for the American system of driving on the right, and so is a Packard we see later being used as an official car by some of the authorities) when she’s blinded by the lights of the Venusian spacecraft coming in for a landing. At least we’re told that’s what happened, since producers Roy Rich, Gene Martel and Bob Balaban (Balaban also directed) had virtually no effects budget (what they had seems to have been blown by the ending sequence in which the Venusian “mothership” flying saucer disgorges a smaller, similar craft for a landing on earth that is eventually aborted) and therefore couldn’t show us anything that elaborate.

The film is basically a lot of long, talky dialogue scenes in a bar between the mysterious stranger (Helmut Dantine, who plays his entire role much the way he played the Nazi pilot forced down over England and forced to interact with the Miniver family in Mrs. Miniver) and Mrs. Susan North (Patricia Neal), who like her character in The Day the Earth Stood Still lost her husband in World War II but had a son (a typically obnoxious movie-brat son, at that). Occasionally they go out and hang out in front of a lake, and in one such scene Dantine’s character from Venus (the planet Venus?) gets to kiss Patricia Neal — “He got farther with her than Michael Rennie did!” said one person at the screening. Like Klaatu, “The Stranger” (that’s how Dantine’s character is billed in the credits, since it’s explained that Venusians don’t use names — which begs the question how they can tell each other apart back home) has come to Earth because the Earthlings’ development of atomic energy while they still remain a warlike people with a penchant for thinking all their problems can be solved with violence poses a direct threat to Venus’s continued existence and requires the Venusians to intervene and impose a pacifist regime on us before we blow both ourselves and Venus up with nuclear weapons. Alas, while Michael Rennie in The Day the Earth Stood Still looked like an alien even out of his spacesuit, we see Helmut Dantine only as a normal-appearing person and his sole concession to “alien-ness” is to play his role with the same kind of off-handed ill-mannered not fitting in he used in his marvelous turn as the German pilot shot down over England in Mrs. Miniver — and somehow the stand-offishness he cultivated in that role as someone we’re not supposed to like (it’s ultimately established that he’s repaying the Minivers’ kindness by still trying to help the Nazis bomb England) doesn’t work for him in Stranger from Venus as someone we are supposed to like and be rooting for. As in The Day the Earth Stood Still, Patricia Neal is at the apex of a love triangle between her, the alien and her rather boorish Earthling boyfriend (Hugh Marlowe in The Day the Earth Stood Still and Derek Bond here), and with the help of a dotty scientist (Sam Jaffe in The Day the Earth Stood Still, Cyril Luckham as “Dr. Meinard” here) the earthers are able to figure out the alien’s mission.

Indeed, Meinard is able to figure out how the Venusian spaceship was powered — not by nuclear energy itself but by magnetism (which couldn’t help but make me think of the Dick Tracy comic strip’s odd turn towards science-fiction in the 1960’s and the proclamation of Tracy’s multimillionaire industrialist friend Diet Smith that “the nation that controls magnetism will control the world”) — and when “The Stranger” tells them that he’s merely the advance guard for another Venusian ship that is bringing four more Venusians, and a “mothership” above it that will retaliate by blowing up and/or burning down (Messrs. Leslie and Jacoby weren’t altogether clear which) the entire surrounding area, incinerating the entire local population, if the Earthlings set off their planned trap and use their own magnets to immobilize the second Venusian ship when it arrives. There’s also a serial-style MacGuffin in the “communications disc” the Venusian needs to warn his fellow invaders that they’re about to land in a trap, which is confiscated by the authorities and Cyril Luckham’s character, depicted as a Captain Vere-like character who’s disgusted by the orders he’s getting but is determined to follow them anyway, recovers it for him, enabling him to tell the Venusian ship not to land even though that means his death. It seems that “The Stranger” went through some sort of operation on his respiratory system before he left so that he would be able to breathe Earth’s atmosphere, which otherwise would be toxic to Venusians (according to the Web page on Venus,, its atmosphere is “96.5 percent carbon dioxide, 3.5 percent nitrogen, with minor amounts of sulfur dioxide, argon, water, carbon monoxide, helium and neon” — note that one of the items it doesn’t contain is oxygen — and also its surface temperature is 800 degrees because that awful atmosphere does such a great job of trapping the heat from the sun, though as one of the attendees at last night’s screening noted, when Stranger from Venus was made scientists didn’t yet know just how hot Venus is); when I saw Helmut Dantine collapse on screen after an unsuccessful attempt to chase down a car I wanted to joke, “Get that man a respirator and a tank full of carbon dioxide at once!

The final scene is supposed to be bitter and poignant in that the Venusian is sacrificing his own life by waving the spaceship away, since without the intervention of fellow Venusians his respiratory system is going to return to normal and all that oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere is going to kill him. The science-minded audience also got a hoot from the film’s biggest scripting mistake: the stranger says he had to travel “25 million light-years” to get from Venus to earth, when in fact Venus is an average of 67 million miles from the sun and Earth is 93 million miles away — but I guess “25 million light-years” sounded cooler to the writers and director Bob Balaban than “26 million miles.” There are a few clever bits in Stranger from Venus, including the one in which the Stranger is asked to demonstrate his ability to speak all known Earth languages (like the folks on Klaatu’s home planet, the Venusians have learned Earth’s languages by monitoring our radio and TV broadcasts) and he successively translates each paragraph of a minor newspaper story about oil drilling into Italian, German, Russian, French and Spanish. For the most part, though, Stranger from Venus is just boring, the sort of movie that isn’t really outright bad but isn’t particularly good either, and though it’s 17 minutes shorter than The Day the Earth Stood Still it seems about half an hour longer simply because it’s so dull. Pairing the two films on one double bill would be like showing The Maltese Falcon and then running The Green Glove — the comparison makes the later, inferior knockoff seem even worse than it is! And to make it even odder, the Web page on this film lists it under a reissue title, Immediate Disaster — which makes it sound like it’s about a tornado or a terrible multi-car auto crash and doesn’t really speak “science fiction.”