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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 such as 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 was once 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.
The film takes place mostly at night, and often in a thick fog. 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 , that will soon pass very near the Earth. Our heroes capture the alien, and try hard to communicate with him. When the ambitious Mears tries to force the Man from Planet X to give up more secrets; the alien responds by fortifying his landing site and taking hostages, including Enid. He has 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 must convince first the local constable and then the 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 pieces of a castle set, reportedly left over from Ingrid Bergman's Joan of Arc, the 71 minutes of Planet X are a stylist's delight. Fully half of the film's running time plays in front of painted backdrops or is dominated by foggy miniatures. The tale is kept in motion by directorial skill alone.
Using a dreamlike flashback structure and some portentous voiceover, the story assembles its characters 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. The actor can probably name more bits in '50s science fiction movies than anyone.
Our alien 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 is not a liability. His face is a stiff mask, but when he leans unexpectedly into the porthole to frighten Margaret Field we 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. Ms. Field is the charming mother of our own Sally Field.
Perhaps it's the paucity of other graces that makes Edgar Ulmer's direction stand out in such relief. The script is no gem, with its side trips into the constable's problem of figuring out a mystery we already fully understand. The spirited acting is about all Ulmer has on his side. It's a study challenge to determine how Ulmer, with a minimum of sets and resources, can create such a rich cinematic flow.
Setting aside which science fiction movie came first, the treatment of the alien in The Man from Planet X is interesting in itself. On this score the script is rather confused. The astral visitor is a victim of human cruelty and greed, but is also the vanguard of a planned invasion (When? In the fifteen seconds it takes for the animated Planet X to zoom past the Earth?). He's a peaceful and cooperative guest, yet 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, It is best appreciated in the present tense where one is less likely to challenge its interesting shortcomings.
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. 2 The aspect ratio graphic on the back is confusing. It states that movie is presented in 'standard format' (what's that?), but displays a very widescreen-ish shape. Worse, it then says that the movie has been modified to fit our TV screens. Perhaps the MGM copywriters meant the teensy modification from 1:37 to 1:33, but Savant thinks that's unlikely. Even when they're presenting movies correctly, as they have this one, video companies seem to want viewers to scratch their heads.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Man from Planet X rates:
1. In the magazine Cinefantastique, producer Julian Blaustein claimed that his film The Day the Earth Stood Still was in preparation way back in 1949.
2. Ever see the trailer for Them!? It's one of the better coming attractions reels ever made. Almost as good is the trailer for Invaders From Mars. Look at a successful '50s fantasy film, and it will more likely than not be accompanied by an impressive trailer.