November 13th, 1998

The Man From Planet X

The Man From Planet X (1951) 1:10
dir. by Edgar G. Ulmer
Robert Clarke, Margaret Field, Raymond Bond, William Schallerts

Well that was better than I was expecting. Pretty much B-level sci-fi…perhaps a step or three below that even, but interesting nevertheless.

So: some hitherto unidentified planet, having gone wildly rogue from it’s usual orbit (usual? Five minutes ago they didn’t even know it existed!), is about to swing very close to the Earth. It’s Planet X, of course, but presumably no relation to the black Muslims. Anyway, a reporter is wired by his old professor friend to come visit him on some weird Scottish island to get a story, which is when the reporter is let in on the somewhat vague details of Planet X. The professor has a shapely daughter (what professor doesn’t?) and a menacing houseguest / fellow scientist who has done time for some unnamed criminal offense in the past. Then they all meet a space-guy. In attempts to communicate with the being, the greedy menacing scientist/houseguest attacks it, trying to pry from it its profitable alien secrets. It gets, understandably, pissed and begins mentally enslaving the townsfolk with some kind of ray. The reporter gets word to Scotland Yard and two detectives arrive with the army and blow the space man and his spaceship all to hell. The menacing guy gets killed in the process. Strangely, the reporter and the professor’s daughter don’t hook up in the end. They just leave it that they’ll visit each other back in the States “in a few months.” See ya!

Okay, got all that?

Well, it was surprisingly good for a no-budget and highly improbable potential Ed-Wood-a-thon with an awful script. Now, the man from Planet X, the alien himself, was pretty hokey looking, and yes, his spaceship looked like an enormous Christmas tree ornament (as do all 1950s spaceships) but forget all that. We already know it’s a poverty-row production. Of course the alien looks phoney. So what.

The opening scene was really good: the reporter (Billy-Wilder-style, already 3/4 of the way through the movie) locked in the professor’s observatory gives an voice-over accounting of his thoughts and how he got there and how he doesn’t know if the professor and his daughter, mind-slaves of the Man from Planet X, are even still alive. Something big is going down and he sits with pencil and paper to get the story all down in case he doesn’t survive it, and the movie unfolds mostly in flashback from there, until time catches up with the present, just before the end.

Not once in the whole scene do you see the reporter’s face.

He’s moving, the camera’s moving all over with him, but always when it rests, it winds up framing the shot from behind him, of his back, or turning away and (subjectively?) looking out of the window; he sits at a desk to write the story and there’s a lamp between his face and us, although our view of his writing hand is not obstructed; the camera moves around in front of the man and he is covering his face in anxiety. I wonder if that was an artistic choice or merely an artistic and practical solution to a production problem: had Ulmer already let the lead actor go with one final scene to shoot still in the script? Either way, it looks great, and not at all silly, as something like that could easily be (viz exploitation of the device for comic effect in Austin Powers).

The sets themselves are surprisingly nice. Thrifty, crafty Ulmer used the leftovers from Ingrid Bergman’s Joan of Arc.

The actors were…okay. I guess. Bad actors are bad actors, not much you can do there. But then again, to have shot all that in six days! There was almost certainly no rehearsal and probably very few re-takes. There was this one guy with a small, minor role as a semicomic Scottish constable of the provincial little town…he definitely had something, had a little bit of it.

There’s a creepy scene where three of the alien’s zombie mind-slaves abduct a former friend from an alley, to make him one of the creature’s unwilling servants. It’s at night and there’s just one long-shot of the alley, very well-lit (or, rather, very skillfully underlit) as they drag him away. Good stuff.

The exact nature of the crisis (beyond the simple one of ‘bad alien making everyone his zombie mind slave’) is badly defined at best. I don’t exactly know what the threat is to Earth; if there is a threat I think it sort of changes slightly in different parts of the movie. I’m trying not to think about it too hard.

To his credit, Ulmer has left it somewhat up in the air whether it’s a good alien or a bad alien. You really couldn’t say. The whole taking of human zombie mind slaves is definitely bad, okay, but he didn’t start going alien-batshit until Mr. Menacing Scientist tried to get funny with the alien’s air supply (or whatever supply) in his little space suit.

The end is like that. When the final, sermonizing music comes on, the hero is in the middle saying, essentially, ‘We don’t really know what happened here today! Maybe it was good! Maybe it was bad! We’ll never know!’ THE END.

Because they could have established friendly communication between the planets, right? Then again, Earth could have wound up one big slave pit for pasty faced aliens in stupid Christmas-ornament ships.

It’s a good movie.


dir Edgar G. Ulmer

Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Claudia Drake, Edmund MacDonald, Tim Ryan

Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you...

Q: How do you make a good movie in 6 days for less than $20,000? A: You don't, unless you're Edgar G. Ulmer.

Sixty camera setups per day. It's simply appalling that under such mammoth obstacles and restraints Detour should not only be good, but be an absolutely brilliant and grim little movie.

Athough, the last shot (where the cops pick him up on the highway) has always irked me. Because, by then, being pinched by the cops is a relief. Sure he'll be going to the gas chamber for murder, but that horrible feeling, being haunted by the idea he'll be caught, is over. Because he is caught. No more worries any more. Except the gas chamber.

But still... It bothers me. I find myself hoping that it'll end with Roberts just walking down the dark highway with his fear and his bad luck; alone; an exile. Like the end of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. Because, when the cops pull up and take Roberts into the squad car I almost think, 'Oh thank God.' And it's like he's feeling that too: he doesn't try to bolt, he doesn't flinch, he doesn't even seem surprised. He just stands there with his shoulders slumped (we only see him from behind I think) and allows the cop to guide him into the car. He looks really tired.

What's also odd is that time has caught up with the flashback (like The Man from Planet X) and we're in the present now. But Robert's voice-over is still narrating. It's sort of dreamlike.

Maybe the movie needs that relief of that last shot with the cop car. It's so unrelievedly brutal for the whole movie... that perhaps should be the achievement... that a movie can be so bleak that when the hero gets picked up by cops and will, assuredly, be executed for murder, it can be perceived as a relieving moment! That's tough indeed.

Ok, then maybe I do like that last shot after all.

Ann Savage. What a shark. The Mt. Everest of American movie bitches. She is so intense and so vicious... she really would be someone painful to sit next to and you can only wince for Tom Neal, stuck with her. I feel bad for her too, and not, as Adrianna Ulmer suggested in her monologue before the movie [went to a special screening at the Film Forum at which Adrianna Ulmer spoke. DM], because of the little TB cough she has, but because she's quite obviously been brutalized by life and fate as well.

When she's just taken a bath and she's stretched out on the couch (nice legs), she justifies her terribly haggard appearance with: 'Thumbing rides isn't exactly good for that schoolgirl complexion' or something like that. And, when Roberts says, 'Oh, from Phoenix are you? You look like a Phoenix girl.' 'Why?' she snaps back, 'Are the girls in Phoenix that bad?' The real Charles Haskell Jr. gets frisky (or tries to) with her for thumbing a ride. I don't know. And, in the hotel together, when she suggests they go fuck, she seems, only momentarily, genuinely vulnerable; lonely. I feel bad for her. Won't somebody please fuck Ann Savage? Maybe it'd chill her out. I doubt it though.

And the scene where Vera dies is neat too. She asks Roberts to open a window (she's totally blitzed) and when he does it, she steals the phone and dashes to the bedroom to call the cops on him, tumbling into bed with the cord wrapped around her neck. Roberts pulls the cord under the door to break the phone (why doesn't he simply pull it out of the wall? he's just asking for his own shitty fate) and he strangles Vera, dead.

It's a great scene. There's a CU of his face, sweaty and straining, tight lipped, and the camera tilts down to a CU of his hands with the cord wrapped around them tightly, pulling, straining. He breaks the door down and walks into the room, the camera moves with him, but is too high to catch her body on the bed. Instead, wonderfully, we pick it up, slanted all askew, in the dresser mirror behind him. It's just such an excellently framed shot and it's so natural-feeling. You just go 'wow'. Then it cuts to a close-up of something...perfume bottle? I forget. But it goes totally out of focus and the camera moves to another object, refocuses, shoes I think, and goes soft again. It goes on, dazedly looking around the room while Tom Neal is narrating in voice over, his head spinning, knowing he's sunk. You can feel his stomach shriveling up, thinking, 'Now I really am guilty!' He gets his coat and hadt and leaves the hotel room, not closing the door. And then we're caught up with the present and we're back in the diner he started telling the story in, nursing that one cup of coffee. Poor unlucky bastard.