(6/10) In a nutshell: Director Edgar G. Ulmer turns this low-budget movie about an alien visitor to a small village into a visually atmospheric, retro-tinged, intelligent expressionist moral tale. Hollywood brings the first alien invasion film to the big screen with a borrowed castle set and lots of mist and obvious matte paintings. Good acting from sci-fi stalwarts Robert Clarke and William Schallert, but unfortunately the low budget, six-day shooting schedule, a mediocre script and expositional dialogue hamper the end product.
The Man from Planet X (1951). Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, Written by Audrey Wisberg and Jack Pollexfen. Starring: Robert Clarke, Margaret Field, Raymond Bond, William Schallert, Roy Engel, Pat Goldin, Tom Daly, Harold Gould. Produced by Audrey Wisberg and Jack Pollexfen for Mid Century Films. Tomatometer: 100 %. IMDb score: 5.7
The Man from Planet X is to 1951 what Rocketship X-M (review) was to 1950 – the low-budget quickie that beat the big budget innovators to the finish line. In 1950 George Pal’s costly space adventure Destination Moon (review) was supposed to be the first serious American space film, but Kurt Neumann took advantage of the film’s lengthy production period and massive marketing, and slapped together the surprisingly good Rocketship X-M in 18 days and beat the bigger brother to cinemas by a month. At the end of 1950 The Day the Earth Stood Still (review) was in pre-production, and the producers of The Thing from Another World were all ready to start filming, but were waiting for the much needed snow to fall. Sensing that alien invasions were going to be all the rage in 1951, the producer/writer duo of Jack Pollexfen and Audrey Wisberg quickly cobbled together the production company Mid Century Productions, whipped up a script and hired cult director Edgar G. Ulmer, who shot The Man from Planet X in six days, which was released in late April 1951, a month before The Thing from Another World and nearly half a year prior to The Day the Earth Stood Still.
Pollexfen and Wisberg counted right. The film cost only 41 000 dollars to make, and made over one million at the box office. The neck-break speed with which it was released also made it the first alien invasion film of the United States. Some reviewers tend to overstate the influence of the The Man from Planet X. It is true that the movie was the first to use much of the kind of imagery and plot devices that have since become staples in science fiction films, but that doesn’t mean that the filmmakers in question invented them. The kind of alien invasion scenarios that the movie portrays started surfacing in literature in the late 19th century (H.G. Wells, et. al.), and were staple fodder in pulp magazines and comic books in the twenties and thirties. Even the design of the alien itself is like ripped from a cover of Astounding Stories or Weird Tales. Aliens landing on Earth had also been prevalent in earlier science fiction film serials, although they had all been perfectly humanoid. Cinematically the film brings very little innovation, but rather gives a nod back to the old expressionist horror movies of the thirties, with its dim lighting, obvious studio sets, gothic castles and foggy marshes. That is not to say that it is a bad film, as my six-star rating proves. And: credit where credit’s due. I have marvelled earlier about how slow Hollywood was to bring certain science fiction elements to full length movies, such as mad scientists, space travel, apocalypse, time travel, robots, aliens and so forth. But this IS actually the first full-length feature film to deal with the prospect of a full-scale alien invasion. So there you have it, for once Hollywood is first at something!
The film begins in medias res, two thirds into the proceedings of the movie, with American reporter John Lawrence (sci-fi staple Robert Clarke) doing a voice-over in a shadowy observatory, telling the ”the most unbelievable story a newspaper man has ever written”, as ”one of the few men to have met … THE MAN FROM PLANET X!” We then cut back in time to another observatory, no less shadowy, where Lawrence discusses the approach of the rogue planet X, which will brush by Earth causing major disruptions, with a Dr. Blane (Robert Fallman). The point of closest approximation to the alien planet will be the remote village of Burry in the Scottish archipelago, where the leading expert on the matter, Professor Elliot (Raymond Bond) has retreated. Without further ado the intrepid journalist lands in front of a matte painting of a Scottish village, where he is picked up by a car that is just barely able to squeeze into the cramped set. The car is steered by the lovely daughter of Professor Elliot, Enid (Margaret Field), who takes him up to the old castle that the scientist has rented for the duration of his stay. One might think that a castle set would be a bit rich to slap up for a six-day shoot, and one would be right. In fact, the castle set is left over from Victor Fleming’s 1948 movie Joan of Arc, starring Ingrid Bergman. In the castle awaits a surprise visitor, the sinister Dr. Mears (sci-fi bit part legend William Schallert), an old ”acquaintance” of Lawrence’s.
On her way home from the castle Enid suffers a flat tire, and encounters a strange space pod in the misty marshes, and peeking inside, she is terrified by the sudden sight of The Man from Planet X – a strange-looking alien with a bubble head and a grim, motionless, white face, somewhat resembling a cross between an African ceremonial mask and a Michael Myers mask. Prof. Elliot and Lawrence set out to investigate and encounter the strange, mute, but apparently non-hostile alien, who nevertheless uses a strange beam to momentarily turn the professor into a zombie-like state, and then follows the duo back to the castle.
During an inspection of the metal of the space pod and the alien’s equipment, the two scientists learn that the metal is far superior to anything found on Earth, and the sinister Dr. Mears immediately starts to fantasise about the riches it could bring if it could be reproduced. Unable to communicate with the alien, they lock him in a cell, and Mears is able to use the universal language of geometry to establish contact. Unbeknownst to the other people involved, he attacks and threatens the weaker alien, and tortures him by turning off his supply of breathable gas in his space suit. He learns then that the alien’s planet is freezing over, and the Man is the vanguard of an invasion and has come to Earth to set up a transmission between their planet and his space pod, which will enable his people to navigate to Earth when Planet X passes by. And that’s where the finale of the film commences.
According to Bernd Herzogenrath’s book The Films of Edgar G. Ulmer, the movie’s symbolism is in dialogue with F.W. Murnau’s horror classic Nosferatu (1922), which Ulmer would have been very familiar with after working with Murnau in Germany. It is true that much of the style of the movie harkens back to Murnau’s foggy, dark, expressionistic landscapes. Ulmer was adamant about making a glass painting in the castle, reminiscent of the one in Nosferatu, the castle has a slanted tower, just like Count Orlock’s castle, and just as Dracula/Orlock arrives in a coffin in his ship on a foggy night, the alien also arrives in his ship amidst a sea of fog, and like Dracula must sleep in his coffin, so can’t the alien escape his space suit. Herzogenrath also makes a number of other symbolic connections, such as the hypnotic beam of the alien and the vampiric mind power of Orlock, a power he also gave to Boris Karloff in his 1934 film The Black Cat, a film that also follows the conventions of Nosferatu.
The script is a bit convoluted and the dialogue sometimes unbearably expositional. But as opposed to many later science fiction B movies, it is a surprisingly intelligent script. From the fact that aliens probably couldn’t breathe in our atmosphere to the fact that geometry is used as a universal language (although I doubt that Dr. Mears could actually have used extortion by way of circles and triangles to get all the information he gets in such a short time-span). There’s a really nice ambiguity about the alien as well. The design makes him look both creepy/menacing, and sort of helpless at the same time, a feeling enhanced by his diminutive stature. Dependent on his supply of breathable gas, he is like a fish out of water on Earth. We never really know his initial intentions. He is helped by Dr. Elliot and Lawrence when he first lands and has problems with his gas supply, and seems friendly enough. Was his true intention friendly immigration, and was his plans of military invasion triggered by the violence of Mears? Or was he just playing it friendly and safe to fool the Earthlings? The script diverts from the host of alien films that would follow, which were more often than not divided into two distinct categories: good aliens and evil aliens. Here, we are never quite sure of what the alien is planning.
This may be a lucky mistake caused by sloppy scripting: Ulmer himself told Cinefastantique that the point should quite clearly be that the alien is benign after having been shown kindness from Elliot and Lawrence, but becomes hostile after being attacked by Mears. This was, according to Ulmer, supposed to be an inversion of Nosferatu, where Dracula was all evil from the beginning. Mears, Ulmer explains, is the inversion of Renfield – whereas Renfield was Dracula’s slave, Mears is the alien’s tormentor.
This doesn’t change the fact that the script, and especially the dialogue, feel quite clunky. Filmed almost entirely at Hal Roach Studios’ Stage 13, many of the sets are extremely cramped, and actor Schallert said some of them were so narrow that they couldn’t even turn around in them. On several occasions the actors play just a few feet away from obvious matte paintings meant to represent the village. Rock formations and walls are made out of papier mache and some of the dead trees in the marshes almost look like Ed Wood-style cardboard cutouts, and you can even see the studio wall in the background. The exterior of the space pod looks a lot like a diving bell – at one point Lawrence even says: ”It looks a lot like a diving bell”. I suppose it might be an old diving bell. Otherwise I doubt that anyone would have written such a stupid reply as ”The only difference between water and space is density”.
However, what director Edgar G. Ulmer does with his shoe-string budget is nothing short of genius. Considering that this was about the same budget and time-frame that directors Sam Newfield and William Beaudine had at their disposal when making films like The Mad Monster (1942, review) and Voodoo Man (1944, review), the result is outright astounding. It doesn’t look like a 41 000 dollar movie, and it certainly doesn’t look like it was shot in six days. In today’s money that would be around 350 000 dollars. Compare this with Destination Moon, that had a budget of 600 000 dollars, almost 6 million dollars when adjusted for inflation.
Ulmer was born in Olomouc, Austria-Hungary, Czech Republic today, and entered the German film industry in the twenties, where he did an internship with Nosferatu (1922) and Sunrise (1927) director F.W. Murnau. He worked as set designer, art director and production designer on a number of movies. Whether he actually worked on such classics as The Golem (1920), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) Metropolis (1927, review) and Sunrise (1927) is disputed, though. In 1930 he co-directed the classic People on Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag) along with another sci-fi great, Kurt Siodmak, and moved to the United States in 1933 when the Nazis came to power. After an exploitation film about venereal disease (Damaged Lives, 1933), he got the opportunity to work for major studio Universal, just when its horror movies were in their peak popularity. He directed the hugely successful and critically acclaimed The Black Cat, starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, which became the studio’s most successful film that year. Unfortunately, though, he also had an affair with Shirley Alexander, wife of film producer Max Alexander, who also happened to be the nephew of Universal boss Carl Laemmle. He married her in 1936, which led to him being blacklisted by all the major Hollywood studios, and after that he could only find work on Poverty Row.
Ulmer made some documentary shorts and in the thirties mostly worked with so called ”race films” targeted at minority groups, such as Latinos, Jews, Germans and Russians, moved into war films in the early forties, and then began what is considered as his artistically most successful period in the mid-forties, when he made the surprisingly fresh horror thriller Bluebeard (1944), starring John Carradine, and the film noir masterpieces Detour (1945) and Strange Woman (1946), considered to be his best work and some of the best film noirs made in Hollywood. As opposed to quickie directors like William ”One-Shot” Beaudine and Sam Newfield, Ulmer got a reputation as a director who never compromised his artistic vision, no matter how low the budget or how short the shooting schedule. As a former set designer, he often chipped in to do matte paintings and sets to save money, and was able to cover up the low production values by borrowing, renting and stealing, as well as covering up the sets with darkness and heavy fog. The idea to use the Joan of Arc castle sets in The Man from Planet X was pure genius, and in the moors, Ulmer turns the low budget to his advantage, creating an expressionist set reminiscent of James Whale’s original Frankenstein movie. And he does what almost no other low budget quickie director would have even attempted – used a moving camera with tracked shots, giving the film a fluidity and cinematic energy that belies the fast shooting speed.
Lead actor Robert Clarke remembered Ulmer’s dedication on an interview with Psychotronic Magazine, retold by TCM: ”As a matter of fact, he did the glass paintings of the castle in the film. Painted them himself. Edgar never gave less than 150 %. I’ve had people ask me, “What was it like to go to Scotland to do a picture?” /…/ He didn’t just have a stationary camera like most B pictures. Like most B pictures before the zoom lens was invented, you had to lay track down on the floor, but with the rock set for the castle, it was uneven, so they had to continually shim it down. Edgar had a cameraman who was trying extra hard. And considering that we only had six days to shoot, the resulting camera moves gave such a wonderful, big feel to the production. Edgar also had a lot to do with editing the script which was very talky. He just had an enormous amount of input. Another director could have just made a flat B picture. He gave an artistic feel to it.”
According Herzogenrath, Ulmer actually pressured Pollexfen and Wisberg to push back the release date of the movie, so that he would have time to do proper pre-production work, such as the above mentioned painting and the rewriting of the script.
Ulmer would eventually go on to make two more sci-fi films in 1960: The Time Barrier and The Amazing Transparent Man.
The cameraman that Clarke mentions above was no other than John L. Russell, who ended up filming Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in 1960, creating some of the most memorable images of cinematic history. Russell also filmed a number of sci-fi films of varying quality: Invasion U.S.A. (1952, review), The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953, review), The Atomic Kid (1954), Tobor the Great (1954, review) and Indestructible Man (1956).
The alien itself is something of a mixed bag. One might think that an alien race capable of traversing interplanetary distances in diving bells might have rectified the design flaw of having space suits with ”oxygen” valves that are easier for their enemies to control than for themselves. Even though the face mask is both effective and eerie, one can’t shake the feeling that there just wasn’t enough time and money to create some proper make-up for the fella. While the always brilliant Glenn Erickson at DVD Savant describes his suit as ”a collection of plumbing accessories topped by a goldfish bowl”, Alfred Eaker at 366 Weird Movies says that ”Ulmer’s eerily mute, Bauhaus alien /…/ is a masterfully surreal design; a gnomelike child that is simultaneously benign, fragile, and aggressive”. I admit that there is some truth to the latter statement, but must digress that more than anything, it does look like assorted plumbing and a fish bowl. And the gun is ridiculous.
There is some mystery regarding the actor who played the alien. He went uncredited in the film, and no official confirmation has ever been given as to his identity. Here we may again see a glimpse of Nosferatu, where Murnau also kept the identity of the heavily made-up Max Schreck a secret. On the other hand, this was quite a common practice. Boris Karloff didn’t get a first screen credit in Frankenstein, and Kirk Alyn never got screen credit for his role as Superman in the first Superman serial (1948, review). All the actors that have been interviewed about the film said that they were actually never told the name of the person who played the alien, suggesting that Ulmer wanted to keep it a secret. Margaret Field remembers that he complained a lot about the uncomfortable suit, and Robert Clarke recalled that he was Jewish and part of an acrobatic troupe. Schallert has said that he was an interesting-looking small man, but not much of an actor. Rumours had been going around, though, that the actor in question was Russian-Jewish immigrant Pat Goldin, who at 49 years and about five feet tall would fit the description. IMDb now lists Goldin as the de facto actor who played the role, and Herzogenrath also says ”the mystery has been solved” without elaborating. Secondary sources (sci-fi chat boards) claim that Stuart Galbraith IV of DVD Talk would have stumbled over an actual contract between Mid Century Productions and Goldin during his stint at MGM. Goldin seems to have been valued for his comedic talents and is best known for playing the character of Dugan in a line of western comedies about Jiggs and Maggie in the fifties.
Lawrence has been described as a typical Ulmer hero: kind, smart, well-mannered and never too sexually interested in his female heroines. Robert Clarke, as all the actors in the film, puts in a fine job, clearly affected by the enthusiasm of the director. He manages to bring life to the sometimes stilted and expositional dialogue and is an overall likeable and lively character. Clarke came up through the ranks from school plays to radio and then Hollywood, where he gut stuck in B or even Z movie quagmires before embarking on a rather successful career as a TV show guest star in the late fifties through to the late eighties, and even put in a few film cameos during the nineties and the naughties. He passed away in 2005.
Despite having appeared in close to 150 films and TV shows, Clarke is best known as the hero of a number of schlock science fiction films. He played the hero in Captive Women (1952), alongside Field and Schallert, The Astounding She-Monster (1957), The Incredible Petrified World (1957), opposite John Carradine, The Hideous Sun Demon (1959), which he co-wrote and co-directed, Beyond the Time Barrier (1960), directed by Ulmer, and starring Ulmer’s daughter Arianne, Frankenstein Island (1981), again with Carradine, and the sci-fi comedy Midnight Movie Massacre (1988). He also appeared as the narrator in Byron Haskin’s Jules Verne adaptation From the Earth to the Moon (1958), and in Where’s Willie, Alienator (1990), and The Naked Monster (2005), his last production. Clarke guested a number of sci-fi TV shows as well, including an episode of Knight Rider (1984). Clarke is not to be confused with Robert Clark, director of The Whispering Shadow (1933, review).
The character of Enid is a breath of fresh air in the sometimes stuffy fifties gender climate – a smart, brave, funny, intelligent and head-strong female heroin who never once swoons, and after being frightened by the alien simply brushes it off with ”It was only the first shock”, and then refuses to be left behind when the men want to go out alien-hunting. Actress Margaret Field was discovered by a Paramount talent scout in 1945, but received mostly bit-parts until 1950, when she played her first leading lady role in A Modern Marriage (against Robert Clarke). Her on-screen chemistry with Clarke is outstanding, and the two teamed up again in 1952 in Captive Women, her only other sci-fi film. Field has a remarkably expressive face and speaks worlds with her eyes. She is able to bring believability to even the most incredulous scenes, but unfortunately the role is sometimes reduced to scream queen antics, which is wholly out of place with the overall character. It is a pity she never achieved wider fame, as she was almost completely consigned to B or Z films, along with a few stints in A-listers and some TV work. If she looks familiar, it may be because of her strong family resemblance to her daughter, two-time Oscar winner Sally Field.
Raymond Bond as Professor Elliot is a typical benign professor of the sort we have seen hundreds of times in these kind of movies, but Bond manages to infuse some personality into the works. His most famous film is Billy Wilder’s Foreign Affairs (1948), but he is without doubt best known for his role in The Man from Planet X, followed by his role as Peter Grundy, storekeeper, in the lesser known Disney live action film So Dear to My Heart (1948). His only other sci-fi appearance is in a bit part as an astronomer in Flight to Mars (1951, review).
William Schallert is perfect as the scheming, shifty Dr. Mears and comes off as a complete prick, which is of course the general idea. There’s no doubt from the moment we see him that he will be trouble, which is probably also the idea, but it might have been nice to save some suspense. There’s always a problem in films when the main characters are kept in the dark too long about information that the viewer has from the very start, since it begins to eat away at credibility and suspense. This is, naturally, no fault of Schallert’s. Schallert is perhaps best known in the industry as a liked president of the Screen Actors Guild, and as a hugely prolific bit-part and supporting actor with credits for over 370 films or series. This number isn’t too startling for actors who got started during the twenties or thirties and appeared in a number of shorts and serials, but it is an impressive stack-up for someone who started his – apparently still on-going(!) film career in the late forties. For baby boomers he may be best known as family father Martin Lane in the Patty Duke Show in the sixties.
For sci-fi fans Schallert is something of a cult actor because of his numerous bit-parts in science fiction from 1949 all the way to 2010. He began his journey in the pseudo-sci-fi movie Mighty Joe Young, and appeared in an episode of the TV show Space Control in 1951 before The Man from Planet X was released. He appeared, sometimes in more substantial supporting roles, sometimes in bit-parts and sometimes as no more than an uncredited extra, in Captive Women (with Clarke and Field), Invasion U.S.A, Port Sinister (1953), the film serial Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe (1953), Tobor the Great (1954), Gog (1954, review), as an uncredited ambulance attendant in the classic giant ant film Them! (1954, review), as the weatherman in the surprisingly good invasion film The Monolith Monsters (1957), as the Earl of Warwick in Irwin Allen’s highly pretentious The Story of Mankind (1957), as one of the doctors in another timeless classic, Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). He had an actual substantial role as the head of CIA in the underrated A.I. movie Colossus: The Forbin Project, appeared as Martin Short’s doctor in the hilarious sci-fi comedy Innerspace (1987).
On TV, Schallert is probably best known for playing the Federation representative Nilz Baris in the Star Trek episode The Trouble with Tribbles (1967), as well as appearing in both the original The Twilight Zone (as a policeman in episode Mr. Bevis, 1960) the remake of the episode A Good Life, directed by Joe Dante (as the father) in Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), as well as Father Grant in the remake of the episode Shadow Play (1987) in the TV series reboot of The Twilight Zone in the eighties. He also guested a host of other sci-fi series, including Men Into Space (1960), The Wild Wild West (1967-1969), Land of the Giants (1969), The Six Million Dollar Man (1974), The Bionic Woman (1976), Quantum Leap (1989), Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993), Lois and Clarke: The New Adventures of Superman (1994) and Medium (2010). Vampire fans may recognise him as Mayor Norris in True Blood (2008-2011).
Sci-fi staple Roy Engel, who we saw previously as an American flying saucer inventor in The Flying Saucer (1950, review), now turns up with an outrageous Scottish accent as police constable Tommy. More on Engel in the attached saucer review, let’s just say he was nearly as prolific a sci-fi bit-part player as Schallert. In a small bit part we see Tom Daly, who turned up in Captive Women, who was actually second-billed in Phantom from Space (1953, review), appeared in Gog and The 27th Day (1957) and played Dr. Frank Gordon in The Angry Red Planet (1959). Bit-part veteran Franklyn Farnum (Destination Moon) flickers by again, along with another bit-part stalwart, Harold Gould, who has appeared in over a dozen sci-fi series, but we’ll get to him in a later post.
Wisberg and Pollexfen went on to co-write and produce Captive Women, Port Sinister and The Neanderthal Man (1953, review). Wisberg co-wrote cult director Antonio Margheriti’s first Gamma One Quadrilogy film The Snow Devils (La morte viene dal pianeta Aytin, 1967) as well as Mission Mars (1968). He is probably best known for writing and producing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s debut movie, Hercules in New York (1969). Pollexfen didn’t make much better films, though, as he co-directed the abysmal Lon Chaney Jr. vehicle Indestructible Man in 1953 and the even worse Monstrosity in 1963 (to his credit, though, the studio went bankrupt in the middle of filming). Editor Frank R. Feitshans Jr. edited most of the duo’s sci-fi films, as well as The Green Hornet TV series (1966-1967) and the bizarre film Frogs (1972).
Visual effects creator Jack R. Glass also worked on Project Moonbase (1953), many of the episodes of Adventures of Superman series (1953-1958), The Magnetic Monster (1953, review), and a number of sci-fi TV films and lesser-known series. Colleauge Jack Rabin also worked on the Superman series, but also showed up on Rocketship X-M, Unknown World (1951, review), Flight to Mars, Invasion U.S.A, Port Sinister, Cat Women of the Moon (1953), The Neanderthal Man, Robot Monster (review), Invaders from Mars (review) (all 1953), The Beast of Hollow Mountain, World Without End, The Black Sheep (all 1956), Unknown Terror, The Monster from Green Hell, The Invisible Boy, Kronos (all 1957), War of the Satellites (1958), Men Into Space (1959-1960), The Atomic Submarine, The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock, Behemoth the Sea Monster (all 1959), The Bees (1978), Deathsport (1978), Humanoids of the Deep (1980) and Battle Beyond the Stars (1980).
The Man from Planet X. Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, Written by Audrey Wisberg and Jack Pollexfen. Starring: Robert Clarke, Margaret Field, Raymond Bond, William Schallert, Roy Engel, Pat Goldin, David Ormont, Gilbert Fallman, Tom Daly, June Jeffrey. Franklyn Farnum, Harold Gould. Music: Charles Koff. Cinematography: John L. Russell. Editing: Fred R. Feitshans Jr. Art direction: Angelo Scibetta, Byron Vreeland. Sound: Joel Moss, William Randall. Special effects: Andy Anderson, Howard Weeks. Visual effects: Jack R. Glass (photographic effects), Jack Rabin (optical effects). Produced for by Audrey Wisberg and Jack Pollexfen for Mid Century Films.