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.