There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.
Sometimes, it doesn’t take much to get there first…
The Man from Planet X (1951)
Distributor: United Artists
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
When one thinks about genre films from the 1950s, the most obvious trope that comes to mind is that of the aliens coming to visit Earth. Some were made with big production values, others were not as ambitious, but all of them came to be associated with the decade, the endless interactions with beings beyond our realm from space.
Which all got started here, on a minuscule budget, in April of 1951:
Our film opens as reporter John Lawrence (Robert Clarke) is doing a voice-over monologue, in preparation for his putting to paper an account of the last few days, which we then relive on screen:
He’s been given a lead about an astronomical discovery by someone he’d been in the 8th USAAF with during the war, Professor Elliot (Raymond Bond). According to his observations, there is an unnamed planet heading towards us, dubbed Planet X, which in the days that the distance between the two bodies grows smaller have seen in increase in UFO sightings. Elliot’s calculations give a day for when the planet will be closest, and the point on earth where Planet X will be at zenith on that day, an isolated village in the Scottish moors.Lawrence goes there to meet the professor, who is attended there by his daughter Enid (Margaret Field, mother of Sally Field), and his colleague Doctor Mears (William Schallert). What was planned by the Professor as a chance to observe the oncoming planet gets shaken up when Lawrence and Enid find some space trash. Made of materials not of this world, Professor Elliot wonders how it was made, while Doctor Mears wonders how much money he could get if he cornered the market on it.
Soon after, the ship the piece fell off of turns up in the moors, and Enid has a Close Encounter of the Screaming-and-Running-Away Kind when she sees the ship’s pilot (a poor schmuck whose name and credit was lost to history, and probably his paycheck too as noted below). After the fright passes, the men make an effort to meet the titular man, which goes promisingly at first as the earth folk manage to relay their peaceful intent. Mears, however, when he gets him alone, tries to beat out of him some industrial secrets, which sours the mood and forces the man to use a hypno-ray to get cheap labor out of his hosts.Lawrence, the only one of the four not now working for the man (from Planet X), finds his way to the village, where he has to convince the skeptical populace that they’re in danger. They’re already on edge, as some of their numbers have disappeared out in the fog. (One of the scarred people was TV mainstay Harold Gould, in his first onscreen gig.) With the stakes rising as Planet X comes ever closer, everyone soon learns what there is to actually worry about over and above disappearing people…
Speaking of folks made to disappear, Ulmer himself was a good example of someone who just could not quit, no matter what was done to him or by whom. Arriving in the US from Germany in 1926, just before sound came to the movies, Ulmer’s work back home was infused in the German Expressionism style, which enabled him to bring striking visuals to his films throughout his whole career. This served him well when he directed the horror classic The Black Cat for Universal, but could not save him when he started an affair with the wife of one of Carl Laemmle’s nephews. He got the girl, but lost access to the studios when Laemmle blackballed him, forcing him to work on small pictures for the rest of his career.
This sense of style with 20 years of experience by 1951 is what enabled Ulmer to lens a visually striking film despite having a budget estimated as only $41,000 (about $379,000 in today’s dollars). Re-using sets from Flemming’s Joan of Arc and assisted by lots and lots of smoke machines, Ulmer made these modest resources go further by using glass painting matte shots he painted and crafting the props and costumes for Planet X’s visitor. He also made things move cheaply by using only six days to shoot and paying everyone in the cast well below guild minimums; supposedly, his alien got bupkis across the board.
Ulmer certainly had to put a lot in the visuals, considering how little he could do with the script (which he supposedly reworked on the fly, which with only six days to shoot, well…). Motivations for our extraterrestrial turn on a dime from scene to scene, which if thought about too closely gets in the way of any sympathy for the film. Each segment of the arc taken alone, however, builds a little momentum that keeps things going. There’s major changes in tone between stretches when the alien is behaving in a sympathetic manner, and when he’s more hostile, but both contain enough interesting ideas in them to keep you from tuning out.
What helps too to move along the sympathetic stretches is Schallert’s Mears. People who better remember his work on The Patty Duke Show may be in for a surprise at how vile he can make a character, given a chance. With a cast that otherwise does a serviceable job, he practically steals the pic from everyone as he tries to steal and abuse our visitor from space.
As for our visitor, he can be forgiven for not realizing what he was in for coming to Earth. The Man from Planet X opened three months before RKO’s The Thing from Another World and five months before Fox’s The Day the Earth Stood Still hit theaters. It came out two years before The War of the Worlds and Invaders from Mars, and five years before Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. The movie came to the theaters first and beat all the major touchstones of the subgenre of alien visitor pictures from that decade, with a budget that probably covered only promotions and catering for any one of these pictures.
This one small step for spacemen proved to be a memorable effort that soon led to one giant leap for spacemankind.
NEXT TIME: We look at the second time around for some film folks; for some Creature of the Night, their second foray was better than we remembered them…