Friday, July 10, 2015

The Man from Planet X (Mid Century Productions/United Artists, 1951)

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

After Her Infidelity I turned on TCM and watched an intriguing item from their tribute night to 1950’s science-fiction movies about invasions from outer space: The Man from Planet X, written and produced by Audrey Wisberg and Jack Pollexfen for something called “Mid Century Productions” (well, the movie was made in 1951, midway through the 20th century), directed by Edgar G. Ulmer — who shot the whole thing in six days and, despite the transparently phony matte painting representing the horizon of the Scottish village of Bury (an appropriate name!), where the film takes place — and starring a second-tier but genuinely talented cast: Robert Clarke as American reporter John Lawrence, who comes to Bury to interview a famous astronomer, Professor Elliot (Raymond Bond), about a mysterious planet called “Planet X” that is basically crashing our solar system and looks to be settling into an orbit similar to Earth’s; and Margaret Field (Sally Field’s mother, and the physical resemblance is quite noticeable) as the professor’s daughter, Enid Elliot (it’s not every day I get to watch a movie whose female lead has the same name as my own mother!), who naturally becomes Lawrence’s love interest as he meets both Professor Elliot and the scapegrace ex-con scientist Dr. Mears (William Schallert) who’s working as Elliot’s assistant.

The Elliots are walking over the moors when they spot a spaceship that looks like a high-tech jack o’lantern with a cardinal’s hat stuck on top of it, and they confront the inhabitant of this object, the Man from Planet X (played by an unbilled actor named Dan Goldin who complained throughout the shoot of how uncomfortable the costume was to wear and how little he was being paid), who wears what looks like a diving suit of the period, complete with a SCUBA tank that can feed him a regular supply of whatever it is he needs to breathe, which isn’t Earth air because Earth air is toxic to his species and he needs a full spacesuit to protect himself from it. The Man from Planet X holds some kind of gun on Our Heroes until something goes wrong with his regulator valve, the earthlings figure out how to fix it, and thereby he has a reason to like them and want to keep them alive. Only the Elliots decide to entrust Dr. Mears with the task of figuring out how to communicate with the alien by using geometric symbols (since even if the alien doesn’t have a language at all resembling any of Earth’s, his people would have had to know geometry to construct the spaceship that brought him here) — and Mears, who wants to grab the alien’s technology so he can become an entrepreneur and make a fortune mass-producing gadgets based on it, grabs control of the alien’s regulator and tells him he will either fed him atmosphere or not depending on whether or not he cooperates. Eventually the alien turns out to be the advance guard of an invasion force from Planet X, who want to take over Earth because their own world is dying and they need a new planet they can colonize to survive themselves — and Our Heroes first have to figure out a way to warn the rest of the U.K. about the invader in their midst, then to kill The Man from Planet X before he can broadcast the signal to the rest of his species’ spaceships to start the invasion of Earth.

Though its plot is pretty standard science-fiction — albeit the earliest use I can think of in a film of the Invasion from Mars/Invasion of the Body Snatchers/It Conquered the World gimmick of the alien using mind control on humans to turn them into will-less zombies that will do whatever he orders them to (I’ve read 1930’s sci-fi stories that used this gimmick but I’m pretty sure this is the first such movie) — The Man from Planet X is a haunting film, partly because of Ulmer’s back-against-the-wall ingenuity as a director (he managed to rent the set RKO had built for their mega-production of Joan of Arc in 1948, directed by Victor Fleming — his last film — and starring Ingrid Bergman and José Ferrer, in his first film, so a medieval French village stood in for a modern Scottish one), and partly because of the haunting appearance and ambiguous characterization of the alien (the mask that’s supposed to represent the real appearance of his face has quite a lot of Kabuki about it) — we’re not sure until the very end whether he was a Day the Earth Stood Still-style alien who came to Earth to bring enlightenment or a War of the Worlds-style alien who came here to conquer and occupy, and even the last lines, in which John Lawrence says that if Dr. Mears hadn’t frightened the alien and turned him hostile to humanity, his presence here could have been “perhaps the greatest curse ever to befall the world, or perhaps the greatest blessing. (TCM highlighted the resemblance between the two stories by showing The Man from Planet X right after the magnificent 1951 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still.) Movies about aliens coming to Earth with uncertain intentions have generally been pretty dreadful, but this is one of the exceptions (along with The Day the Earth Stood Still, the original Invaders from Mars, the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the cheap, tacky but unexpectedly haunting indie Teenagers from Outer Space), and for once Edgar G. Ulmer’s low-budget ingenuity got harnessed (as it had previously for The Black Cat, Bluebeard, Out of the Night and Detour) to a genuinely good and compelling script.