Much is made of the fact that this very early '50s science fiction film reached screens ahead
of any other movie about an invasion from space, when the truth likely is that pictures
The Thing and
The Day the Earth Stood Still were in
production way before this low-budget independent was even conceived. 1 A tiny movie of giant merit, The Man from Planet X used to be a joke when seen in dark, blurry and spliced-up television prints. It was the featured title in the MGM laserdisc collection United Artists Sci Fi Matinee but only released on VHS last year. Now the moody atmosphere of the legendary Edgar J. Ulmer's design and direction is restored for all to see.
A strange invader alights on a Scottish moor in a metallic space capsule, much to the
consternation of local scientists Professor Elliot (Raymond Bond) and Dr. Mears (William
Schallert). American newsman John Lawrence (Robert Clarke) falls in love with Elliot's daughter
Enid (Margaret Field) while they investigate. The visitor turns out to be related to
the discovery of a rogue planetoid called Planet X which will soon pass very near the Earth.
Once they capture the alien, our heroes try hard to communicate with him. The
ambitious Mears tries to force the alien to give up more secrets; the Man from Planet X responds
to Mears' hostility by fortifying his landing site and taking hostages, including Enid, with a
ray gun that turns men into his slaves. Only then does it become apparent that the alien has
come as the first representative of a massive invasion. Trapped in a nightmare situation, John
has to convince first the local constable and outside authorities to use military force
against the alien, before Planet X draws near and an attack can commence!
One of United Artists' initial releases after its reorganization by Arthur Krim,
The Man From Planet X's status of being the first movie about an invader from space is
incidental. This is an Edgar Ulmer movie first and foremost. The production values are minimal
but with a lot of fog and some leftover pieces of a castle set, the 71 minutes of Planet X
are a stylist's delight. Half the running time played in front of painted backdrops or
dominated by foggy miniatures, and sheer directorial skill alone keeps the story moving.
Using a dreamlike flashback structure and some portentous voiceover, the story puts together
its various parts in record time - pleasant hero, sweet heroine, unpleasant villain. The villain
in this case is not the initially benign alien, but the perfidious professor played by William
Schallert, who can probably name more bits in 50s science fiction movies than anyone.
is a mysterious fellow with a well-prepared introduction. The fact that his spaceship looks like
a Christmas tree ornament and his spacesuit a collection of plumbing accessories topped by a
goldfish bowl isn't a liability. His face is a stiff mask, but when he leans unexpectedly into
the porthole to frighten Ms. Field (mother of Sally Field, we're given to understand) we all
jump just the same. Z-movie favorite Robert Clarke makes a fine hero, if perhaps a bit too
thoughtful and gentle for the he-man 1950s.
Perhaps it's the paucity of other graces that makes Ulmer's direction stand out so well. The
script is no gem, with its side trips into the problems the constable has with figuring out a
mystery we already know. The spirited acting is about all Ulmer has on his side. It's an object
lesson to determine why Ulmer, with as few or fewer resources than many another director makes
the same minimal sets every other lowbudget director uses yield such a cinematic flow.
Setting aside what movie showed what first, the treatment of the alien in The Man from Planet
X is interesting all by itself. On this score the script is rather confused. He is the
vanguard of a planned invasion (When? In the fifteen seconds it takes for the animated Planet
X to zoom past the Earth?) but also a victim of human cruelty and greed. He's a peaceful and
cooperative guest, but also coldly turns earthmen into his slaves. Presented as a typical
horrifying menace, he seems so easily vanquished as to be relatively harmless. Yes, this film
is about the nuances of Ulmer's vision and is best appreciated in the present tense where you'll
be less likely to challenge its less logical aspects.
MGM's DVD of The Man from Planet X is clean and smooth with few markings of any kind.
The image has a nice gradation from dark skies through hazy grays to the shiny surface of the
alien spaceship. As with many of the most popular early Science Fiction films, the trailer is
one that would grab and hold any kid's attention.