Invaders from Mars

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(6/10) In a nutshell: This Hugo-nominated 1953 film by William Cameron Menzies is delightfully whimsy and disturbingly surreal, balancing between pure camp and serious psychological questions about adolescence. In a dreamlike reality (or a realistic dream) 10-year old David’s parents and friends are body-snatched by Martians who have landed in his backyard. It’s a race to see if David and his confidantes can blow up the UFO before the aliens have infiltrated the whole town.

Invaders from Mars (1953). Directed by William Cameron Menzies. Written by Richard Blake, John Tucker Battle, Arthur Gardner. Starring: Helena Carter, Arthur Franz, Jimmy Hunt, Leif Erickson, Hillary Brook, Morris Ankrum. Produced by Edward L. Alperson for Edward L. Alperson Productions. Tomatometer: 82 %. IMDb score: 6.5

1953 invaders from mars 029 luz potter

Publicity poster for Invaders from Mars, Luz Potter as “Martian Intelligence”.

1953 was the year when the floodgates finally opened for what we would call ”fifties camp” in science fiction – only three films into the year, I have already reviewed Robot Monster, and now we get to another cult classic: Invaders from Mars. While the former is an entity in and of itself, the latter also has some claim to uniqueness: it was the first alien film in colour. Rushed into theatres in April to beat the premiere of George Pal’s Magnum Opus The War of the Worlds (review), the movie is one of the more bizarre, and beloved, entries in fifties science fiction canon.

Poster.

Poster.

People had been talking about little green men from Mars in dozens of films before, but up until now they had either been something completely different, and even when they were supposed to be green (The Thing from Another World, 1951, review), they were actually grey. But now the audience finally got their green men, except they were huge.

Let’s first of all get the story out of the way: In all it’s short simplicity it is this: 10-year old David MacLean (Jimmy Hunt) is watching stars with his telescope as he sees a flying saucer land behind a hill close to their house, and his father George (Leif Erickson), scientific engineer, goes out to have a look, and disappears. He later returns, but is changed. The loving father is now a cold-hearted beast who hits his son and seems very enigmatic about what he had been up to during the night and morning. David notices a red scar on his neck and realises that aliens have done something to his father. And thus the story gets rolling.

One by one all the people involved in the work on a new space rocket (and their families) get sucked into the sandpit outside the MacLean house, including David’s mother (Hillary Brook), his best friend Kathy (Janine Perreau), and some of the top brass in the military and the police. Those who are still themselves initially refuse to believe David, that is, apart from the beatiful psychologist Dr. Pat Blake (Helena Carter), and her friend, astronomer Dr. Stuart Kelston (Arthur Franz). In his observatory, Dr. Kelston explains that it is quite logical that the people of another planet, say Mars, gets worried when we humans start planning to build nuclear rocket stations in space, and thus try to intervene with the rocket production. Burrowing their space ship in the sand, they snatch up those central to the project, and insert ”receivers” in their brains, so they can control their actions.

Dr. Kelston Arthur Franz) showing off his cool collection of UFO:s to David Jimmy Hunt) and Dr. Blake Helen Carter).

Dr. Kelston (Arthur Franz) showing off his cool collection of UFO:s to David (Jimmy Hunt) and Dr. Blake (Helen Carter).

A phone call to Colonel Fielding (sci-fi stalwart Morris Ankrum) is all that is needed to bring in the military with hundreds of tanks to the MacLeans’ backyard, where ultimately all involved proceed down the rabbit hole, and discover a huge network of tunnels that the aliens have burrowed with their rock-melting cannons, leaving behind a strange, bubbly surface. Here we also encounter the green men from Mars, who strangely enough loom a lot like awkard bug-eyed, lumbering giants in ill-fitting green velour leotards with zippers down the back. They are all controlled by the strange ”Intelligence”, a golden head with tentacles sitting inside a glass sphere (played by Luz Potter). Action commences as one or the other of the characters are kidnapped, and at one point the Martians try to install yet another ”receiver” in Dr. Blake’s head. Gunfights and endless running back and forth in the tunnels ultimately ends in the military planting a bomb in the UFO.

Mary Maclean Hillary Brooke) worrying about the changes in her husband George Leif Erickson).

Mary Maclean (Hillary Brooke) worrying about the changes in her husband George (Leif Erickson).

This is followed by a surreal montage of David’s face as he seems to be running, but getting nowhere, the bomb’s timer counting down, but never reaching zero, the UFO taking off from the sandpit, but never getting out. Flashbacks from the film play out, the army bombards the field, and finally a big explosion coincides with a mighty crash of thunder, and David wakes up in his bed. His parents are back in their beds, happy and normal, and have no recollection of any alien abduction. It was all a dream. David happily returns to his bed, but not without first taking a look out of the window … where he sees a flying saucer landing in the backyard … [cue dramatic music]

The Martians-

The Martians.

It must be said, before we proceed, that this film has as many detractors as it has staunch defenders, and often, it seems, the difference between these is that one group has seen this film as kids and the other has not. That’s a bit of an over-simplification, but in general terms, this seems to be the case. Case in point: Glenn Erickson’s glowing double-barrelled essay on the film at DVD Savant; never has a low-bugdet film slapped together with such sloppiness garnered such a philosophical and psychological treatment. Low-budget here means 290 000 dollars, though, which means it still had a decent production budget, enough to design and produce sets and special effects, it is time that seems to have been the main problem. (290 000 dollars in 1953 would equate about 2 million dollars with project-based inflation today.) EDIT: I now found another source stating it was made on 60 000 dollars, but that simply seems like too low a budget for a film like this (although it would explain the Martian costumes).

The script for the film appears to have been floating around since 1950, until Twentieth Century-Fox signed a distribution deal with Edward L. Alperson Productions in 1952, and producer Alperson signed William Cameron Menzies on as director. The original treatment for the story was written by John Tucker Battle, and the screenplay was finalised by Richard Blake. Battle has a few dozen writing credits, mostly for TV, best known for Disney’s So Dear to My Heart (1948). He also worked as a reporter, playwrite and author of short stories. Not much information seems to be available on Richard Blake, except that he wrote a handful of little-known films and some TV.

Little alien-controlled Kathy Janine Perreau).

Little alien-controlled Kathy (Janine Perreau).

Apparently Battle was so furious over the dream-ending that he demanded his credit be removed from the film, and thus Blake ended up getting most of the credit for the movie, and even in later years, Battle has been credited simply for ”story”. In fact, Battle wrote a very detailed screenplay, which he allegedly based on a dream (ironic, huh?) that his wife had. The script is available online and reveals that Blake only made minor cosmetic changes to it, mostly for the sake of streamlining and compressing – for example ”Pat” and ”Blake” were originally two different characters. In fact, there is an even earlier rough draft of the screenplay edited by writer and producer Arthur Gardner, which outlines the basic idea of the film, but missing several key scenes that were added by Battle. Gardner received no credits, but this little piece of information shows the interesting evolution of even a low-budget film like this, and one can only imagine the armies of uncredited writers that have a go at the big blockbusters of today. It seems, though, as if someone took notice of Gardner’s work, since it can hardly be a coincidence that David’s last name is changed to Gardner in the 1986 remake by Tobe Hooper. Gardner had initially planned to produce the film alongside his constant companion Joseph V. Levy, but their rights to the script expired. The duo went on to produce a number of westerns and even a few sci-fi films, best known is probably The Monster that Challenged the World (1957).

Leif Erickson and Jimmy Hunt.

Leif Erickson and Jimmy Hunt.

Strangely enough the British censors also found the dream-frame offensive, one can only wonder why – and even demanded that new material be filmed for the movie to be released in the UK – which Menzies and he actors actually did. The Brits demanded more scientific exposition at the observatory (possibly for the film to have some educational value), and the British version of the movie ends with the UFO exploding in mid-air, as to not leave any doubt that the invaders were real and are now well and truly dead, so no children have to fear any monsters in baggy velour hiding in the closet.

One guess is that the dream frame was a machination by director Menzies. The original screenplay hints at some psychological depth, especially as the film is told from the perspective of a child, and deals with an estrangement from his parents. Menzies might have decided to take the film to even deeper Freudian levels by framing it in a dream, or a dream within a dream, if one adheres to some analysts. At first sight the scripts seems highly illogical and incoherent, which is how Menzies must have found it as well, but it sort of makes sense of you view it as the dream of a pre-teen kid struggling with trust issues and going through the adolescent phase of separating himself from the symbiotic relationship with his parents. There are dozens of cues to riff off regarding themes of sexual awakening, distrust of the people close to you and the search for adult role models as surrogate parents, latent in the ”original” script, but brought into focus by the surrealist style of Menzies’ direction.

One of the stunning angles by WIlliam Cameron Menzies. Not to mention the spaceship design.

One of the stunning angles by WIlliam Cameron Menzies. Not to mention the spaceship design.

There are hints throughout the film that what we are seeing is not reality. High and low camera angles and long, static wide shots remind us of films like Orson Welles’ The Trial (1962) or Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). Menzies, who also designed the film, made surrealist sets with unnaturally high ceilings and elongated, unfurnished halls, some of which were used for multiple locations. Small changes appear, like doors suddenly missing where they had been before, all soup cans in the department store are upside-down. That the astrologer would so happily support every one of David’s claims about the aliens is rather absurd, as are the conclusions he draws from them, and the fact that the military is sold on the idea with just a phone call even more so. This may of course seem terribly clever in hindsight, but once you know the story behind the script, it does seem very much like an attempt by a very clever director to cover up huge, gaping inconsistencies in a juvenile, absurd story, especially as Battle had insisted on it all being real.

Jimmy Hunt illuminated by he landing saucer.

Jimmy Hunt illuminated by he landing saucer.

So the film can be seen as an adolescent boy’s growing pains explored in a dream, and you can get really Freudian with some of the details if you like. But there’s also the other theme explored here, as in almost all science fiction films made in Hollywood in the fifties – the the communist scare and the fear of nuclear war. The Martians’ premise for sabotaging the rocket factory is their own fear that humans may invade their space with nuclear platforms, and Dr. Kelston is even highly sympathetic to this notion, not really laying any blame on the Martians’ actions, which is an interesting twist in the script.

That the Martians are the bad guys is in no doubt, though. However reasonable their fears, their methods and actions speak for themselves. It is worth pointing out that this is the first film dealing with an alien invasion specifically through body-snatching, although the 1951 movie The Man from Planet X (1951, review) played with the idea of Martian mind-control.

Of course, the notion of something evil taking over the minds and bodies of people had long been explored in sci-fi and horror films, but in most cases we were talking about more moral issues than political ones, even though many mad scientists had distinctly Russian or German traits. But the alien invasion genre gave filmmakers completely new possibilities to draw parallels to communism creeping in to the US through your neighbours and your family, and also to tackle the poisonous paranoia fuelled by McCarthyism.

Cover for Potters The Germ Growers, written under pseudonym.

Cover for Potter’s The Germ Growers, written under pseudonym.

The idea of alien mind and body control wasn’t new, though, and had been tapped in literature for quite some time. The idea had been around since Robert Potter’s 1892 novel The Germ Growers, about aliens who take the form of humans to cultivate deadly germs, and was explored for example in Robert Bloch’s The Shambler from the Stars (1945) and John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There (1948). But the genre really took off with the red-scare of the fifties, resulting in works like The Puppet Masters (1951) by Robert A. Heinlein, Good-Night, Mr. James (1951) by Clifford Simak, We Don’t Want any Trouble (1953) by James Schmitz and if course the most famous of them all, Invasion of the Body Snatchers by Jack Finney (1955).

William Cameron Menzies was first and foremost a production designer. Or one should say, THE production designer, since the title was invented for him, so as to convey that he was in charge of the design of the entire film, rather than just the matte paintings, when he worked on The Thief of Bagdad in 1924. Other production designs include films like The Tempest (1928), for which he won an Oscar, Gone with the Wind (1939), for which he got another Oscar and For Who Whom the Bell Tolls (1943). He also directed 20 movies, of which the best known is the incredibly lavish and visionary sci-fi epic Things to Come (1936, review), a film hampered by H.G. Wells’ likewise incredibly preachy script and some awfully wooden acting – a film that discouraged the UK from making costly sci-fi films for decades, but also the the most impressively imagined sci-fi film (without challenger) made between Metropolis (1927, review) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Menzies was a cheif importer of German expressionism, and a lot of the elongated sets and the extreme depth shots were trademarks of his, please read this great blog post by David Bordwell for more on him.

Behold the alien mutants!

Behold the alien mutants!

But all the cleverness of the direction can’t hide the fact that Invaders from Mars is a mess of a movie, put together with way too little time and money to do the director’s vision justice. Endless stock footage of American military WWII exercise has been used and re-used to pad out the running time. When we see the same shots of tanks rolling around a muddy field firing artillery for the second and third time, we know the editor (Arthur Roberts) is in trouble. The same goes for the shots of Martians running around in the tunnels. Not only are shots of the six lumbering extras re-used, but they are also horizontally flipped, re-used and then the flipped images are re-used again.

Aliens in close-up.

Aliens in close-up.

And as for the Martians, this is probably the cutest bunch of Martians ever portrayed on film. The laughably amateurish velour suits were reportedly put together in a single day by either wardrobe designer Norma Koch or one of the seamsters. Disregarding the fact that the zippers are clearly visible, the leotards are adorably ill-fitting, gathering in sausages here and there on the actors’ bodies. Instead of the long, clawed fingers described in the original script, we get fingerless mittens, as if the whole bunch of Martians were going out skiing. And it doesn’t help that most of the extras have extremely bad posture and some are a bit stocky around the waist area. Add to this the fact that some of the extras have a hard time moving, either because of the suits or because they were a bit fragile because of the conditions that caused their gigantism. Case in point: Lock Martin, the man who played Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, review), who also appears in this film. There’s just no way you can be afraid of these guys. In some shots little people were used to stand in for the lead actors, as they were carried away by the Martians, since the two tall guys weren’t strong enough to carry and run with Helena Carter.

Luz Potter as Intelligence.

Luz Potter as Intelligence.

The one Martian that is well designed and utterly spooky is the Intelligence, a very cleverly designed villain, with just a head and the upper part of a torso inside a glass sphere, never speaking, but just staring from her jar, controlling Martians and humans alike with her mind. How they did the special effects of removing most of actor Luz Potter’s body is still a mystery to me. Apparently billed as ”Luce”on IMDb her name is however spelled Luz in her Telegraph obituary from 2000. Potter appeared in a number of films, including The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957).

Jimmy Hunt’s constant exclamations of ”Gee whiz!” and ”Gosh!” are sure hallmarks of the fact that this film is made in the fifties, and Hunt’s constant expression throughout the film is one of a person who has just bitten a lemon. In short, he is the classic boy actor, and despite his rather extensive pre-teen career, this seems to be the only one of his films that really stuck. In truth, Hunt avoids becoming the fall-down of the movie by being just nuanced enough to make the performance endurable, and his up-nosed charm isn’t lost on the viewer. Hunt left show-biz in the mid-fifties, but had a cameo as the police chief in the 1986 remake of the film.

Arthur Franz with even more models of UFOs. All astronomers have these, naturally.

Arthur Franz with even more models of UFOs. All astronomers have these, naturally.

Arthur Franz is pleasant as Dr. Kelston, and is able to deliver some really daft lines without making them sound too outlandish. Franz had quite a successful career as a supporting actor in both B movies and A efforts like The Caine Mutiny (1954) and Sands if Iwo Jima (1949). He may be best remembered for playing the lead as a deranges murderer in The Sniper (1952). He appeared in a large number of science fiction series on TV and a few films, we have previously reviewed him on this blog in one of the major roles of the 1951 film Flight to Mars (1951, review). He also appeared in The Flame Barrier (1958), Monster on the Campus (1958), The Atomic Submarine (1959), in all of which he played the lead. He also narrated King Monster in 1976.

Jimmy Hunt and Leif Erickson.

Jimmy Hunt and Leif Erickson.

Perhaps the best performance of the film is put in by Leif Erickson, playing the father George MacLean. He is so warm and loving in the beginning of the film, that it comes as a real shock as he gets abducted and turns into an evil menace to his son. Born William Anderson, he is best known for his work in westerns, but was also memorable in films like The Snake Pit (1948) with Olivia de Havilland and On the Waterfront (1954) starring Marlon Brando.

Erickson was originally a singer and trombonist with a jazz band, but appeared in films under the name Glenn Erickson, before changing his first name to Leif because of his Nordic looks. He is probably most famous for playing one of the leads in the western series High Chapparal, which made him a huge star in Europe, where the show was especially popular, winning the prestigious German Bambi award for best international TV series in 1971. He appeared in a few sci-fi series, but only one other film: Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977), starring Burt Lancaster.

Hillary Brooke and Leif Erickson.

Hillary Brooke and Leif Erickson.

Hillary Brooke is quite good as the mother, even if she doesn’t get that much screen time. Brooke was something of a minor star of B movies, best known for her work with Abbott and Costello, and for three of Universal’s Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone, especially Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943) and The Woman in Green (1945). As a former model, she herself said that her road to movie stardom wasn’t so much about talent as it was about her being a tall blonde woman with a knack for portraying villainous characters and ”straight women” without breaking a sweat. ”I never thought I was a great actress. Maybe I would have been better if I’d worked harder at it. But I really enjoyed my career and what I was doing. I played a lot of villainesses and rather enjoyed it”, she said according to an obituary in The Independent in 1999. Brooke appeared in small roles in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941, review), the Spencer Tracy version, and The Maze (1953, review), and had the female lead in The Lost Continent (1951).

One actor we are extremely happy to see getting a fair amount of exposure is Morris Ankrum, who plays the no-nonsense Colonel Fielding, perhaps the real hero of the film. Ankrum holds a special place in the hearts of lovers of old science fiction movies through his numerous appearances in small roles, often as stern military types, but also the occasional mayor or scientist. Ankrum is probably better known to a broader audience as the quintessential ”heavy” from westerns in the thirties and forties, particularly from his six Hopalong Cassidy films.

Morris Ankrum.

Morris Ankrum.

Ankrum had a legal degree and a background in theatre, where he started off on a hobby basis, but soon became a fixture in the Pasadena Playhouse. He worked as actor, writer, producer and director on stage, and appeared in close to 300 films or TV series in his career. Most online biographies claim his name was originally Nussbaum, but according to Chuck Anderson at The Old Corral, his census data does not back that up. According to census information, Morris Ankrum’s parents’ names were Ankrum. It is, however, possible that he might have used the name Nussbaum at some point in his early career, but it seems like a strange stage name to take. What we do know is that in his first films he was credited as Stephen Morris.

Ankrum made his sci-fi debut in 1950 with the first sci-fi film of the decade, Rocketship X-M (review), and continued with a substantial role as an evil Martian leader in Flight to Mars (1951, review). He played the secretary of defence in Red Planet Mars (1952, review) and had a number of guest spots on Ivan Tors’ TV series The Science Fiction Theatre (1955-1956). He held major supporting roles in the legendary Ray Harryhausen-animated Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), the bad Beginning of the End (1957) and the underrated Kronos (1957) – as well as in the hilarious The Giant Claw (1957). In 1958 he was one of the actors that shot additional footage for Roger Corman, turning Ishiro Honda’s Jû jin yuki otoko (1955, review) into Half Human: The Story of the Abominable Snowman.

Ankrum scouting.

Ankrum scouting.

Ankrum further appeared in How to Make a Monster (1958) and narrated Curse of the Faceless Man (1958). In 1959 he went uncredited in Byron Haskin’s adaptation of Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon in a bit-part as US President Ulysses S. Grant. He had a small role in The Most Dangerous Man Alive (1961), and again went uncredited in his last film role in X (1963), often considered one of Roger Corman’s best films. In the late fifties Ankrum’s film roles had all but dried up, but he kept busy on stage and on TV, from where he might be best remembered for his recurring role as a judge on 22 episodes of Perry Mason (1957-1964). He passed away in 1964.

In a small role as Sgt. Baker we see William Phipps, lead actor in Arch Oboler’s post-apocalyptic religious allegory Five (1951, review). 1953 was a year when Phipps was almost synonymous with science fiction. After Invaders from Mars he appeared in Oboler’s The Twonky (review), George Pal’s and Byron Haskin’s The War of the Worlds and Arthur Hilton’s Cat Women of the Moon. He later acted in a number of sci-fi series, including The Twilight Zone, The Green Hornet and Batman. As of 2016, William Phipps, born 1922, has the distinction of being the oldest living actor to be primarily associated with science fiction, according to this list, and when writing this, he is the 22nd oldest movie star alive.

Jimmy Hunt in the 1986 remake of Invaders from Mars.

Jimmy Hunt in the 1986 remake of Invaders from Mars.

Another small role is occupied by Milburn Stone of Gunsmoke fame, who had previously been sighted in Invisible Agent (1942, review), Captive Wild Woman (1943, review), The Mad Ghoul (1943, review) and Jungle Woman (1944). As an MP we see later TV stalwart Richard Deacon (of The Dick van Dyke Show), who also appeared some of he better sci-fi films of the mid-fifties: in Them! (1954, review), This Island Earth (1955, review) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), as well as Piranha (1978). The small but important role as the police desk sgt is played by the pleasant Walter Sande, previously seen in The Man They Could Not Hang (1939, review) and Red Planet Mars (1952). He later appeared in The War of the Worlds, The Navy vs. the Night Monsters (1966) and some sci-fi series.

Bit-part actor Frank Wilcox had previously appeared in a few little-known semi-sci-fi films, and went on to play in Carolina Cannonball (1955), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and Beginning of the End. The Pentagon chief of staff is played by something of a sci-fi cult actor: Robert Shayne. Shayne played the lead in The Neandarthal Man (1953) and had substantial supporting roles or bit-parts in Indestructible Man (1956), Kronos, The Giant Claw, How to Make a Monster, War of the Satellites (1958), The Lost Missile (1958), and Teenage Cave Man (1958). However, he is best known for appearing in close to 100 episodes of Adventures of Superman (1952-1958) as Inspector Henderson.

One of the unusual sets for the film.

One of the unusual sets for the film.

Even though Menzies himself took care of the production design, he also hired an art director, and it wasn’t just any hack: duties were handled by Boris Leven. Leven was by that time not a huge name in the business, despite dozens of pictures, but Menzies clearly identified talent when he saw it. Leven would later become production designer in his own right, perhaps best known for his work with The Day the Earth Stood Still director Robert Wise, on pictures like West Side Story (1961), The Sound of Music (1965) and the stylish, claustrophobic sci-fi thriller The Andromeda Strain (1971). In 1953 he also worked on Donovan’s Brain.

The eerie music of Invaders from Mars is one of the best known scores for a fifties science fiction film, consisting of 16 voices chanting dramatic, wordless cues in unison, creating an otherworldly and spine-chilling atmosphere. Credit has been given to Raul Kraushaar, a French immigrant who worked for Republic. Even though an independent film, it was shot in Republic’s studios, and a lot of Republic staff worked on the movie. Kraushaar did compose for a number of films, but his real role in the industry was firstly as an owner of a large music library, which he used to put together stock music scores for movies, and secondly as a sort of middle-man between composers and studios.

This meant that Kraushaar would find the talent for Republic and commission a score. The actual composer would then work as a ”ghost composer” and get a one-off payment for the work, while signing off his (or her) rights for the music to Kraushaar, who subsequently was credited for the composition and received the royalties. In later years Kraushaar has sometimes gotten some flack for maintaining that he did compose the groundbreaking music for Invaders from Mars, but this was actually part of the agreement, which he did with the actual composers. This was a fairly common practice in Hollywood during this age.

Raul Kraushaar and Mort Glickman at the piano.

Raul Kraushaar and Mort Glickman at the piano.

On this particular film the composer was Mort Glickman, who had a long working relationship with Kraushaar. Glickman scored many films for Republic under Kraushaar’s banner, mostly westerns. Although often praised, Glickman’s music was fairly unoriginal even when he got to make non-westerns, which he could score in his sleep by the early fifties. Nothing in his scores had anticipated the originality of Invaders from Mars, his first chance to work on a film with a fairly large budget, and one of the most anticipated films of the spring 1953. His wavering bass lines in the beginning of the movie, the high-frequency violins and the oft-imitated ethereal choirs, edited in post-production to refine the haunting quality, all seems like something that has just been waiting for all those years for the right production to be sprung on the world. Invaders from Mars could have been the stepping stone Glickman had waited for, but tragically he passed away the same year. Glickman’s music can also be heard in over a dozen of Republic’s sci-fi serials, as well as the film Untamed Women (1952), which contains his probably most original work outside Invaders from Mars.

The special and visual effects of Invaders from Mars is somewhere along the middle tier in comparison with other fifties sci-fi films. Clearly the budget and time-frame haven’t allowed for much extravagance, and apart from the brilliantly designed Intelligence, the best effect is the often repeated shot of the sandpit above the UFO opening and closing. The opening part is easy enough, just build a funnel and heap sand on it. The closing bits work beautifully, and as far as I can understand, no post-production magic of playing the scene backwards was even needed. The camera they used apparently allowed for loading the film upside down, thus shooting from the ”end” of the film towards the ”beginning”, and once you showed it the right way, it played backwards.

Jimmy Hunt as David and Helena Carter as Dr. Pat Blake.

Jimmy Hunt as David and Helena Carter as Dr. Pat Blake.

The rest of the special effects are at least wonderfully imaginative. The shots of the tunnel walls bubbling under the heat of the Martians’ tunnelling ray was actually coloured oatmeal bubbling away in a huge kettle, and to create the strange bubbled walls of the caves, the production team first tried sticking balloons to the walls, but decided it looked too much like someone had, well, balloons stuck to the walls. So they switched the balloons for something smaller, which turned out to be condoms. Thus, the Martian caves are lined with hundreds of inflated condoms.

The matte paintings are all superbly well-made, and the interior of the spaceship is imaginatively made, well lit and filmed in provocative angles, creating an otherworldly atmosphere. The central set-piece for the film is the hill in the MacLeans’ backyard, behind which all the people disappear. Deliberately made to look like a flat backdrop, the effect when people first start walking along the path – into what looks like a matte painting – is wonderful. The set is reminiscent of the path that the somnambulist of the German expressionist masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari takes the film’s damsel in distress over when he kidnaps her, and this is probably deliberate, since the movie’s design often echoes German expressionism.

Flying saucers.

Flying saucers.

The composition of sets, backdrops and rear projection, as well as the odd animation and effect shot, is seamlessly made. The actual space-ship i flight, however, is nothing much more than a glowing silhoutte, which is something of a disappointment. The special effects are the best that a B movie could buy at the time, as they are made by the uncrowned kings of B movie effects, Jack Rabin and Irving Block, with the additional help of 5-time Oscar nominee Jack Cosgrove (more here) and 2-time Oscar nominee Edward Lydecker. For more on Rabin and Block, see for example my review of Unknown World.

The movie was filmed in colour by cinematographer John F. Seitz. This was not the first science fiction film in colour; Michael Curtiz did Doctor X (review) in two-strip colour as early as 1932. However, up until the fifties, filming in colour was expensive and very time-consuming, largely because of the so-called three-strip process, which required three different strips of film to be exposed to light, and registered red, green and blue light. These strips were dyed individually and then superimposed over each other. It wasn’t until the fifties that a new single-strip process made it possible to make colour films at almost the same price as black-and-white movies. George Pal had filmed his two epics, Destination Moon (1950, review) and When Worlds Collide (1951, review) in colour, and Flight to Mars (1951, review) had also been in colour. Invaders from Mars used the new single-strip Eastmancolor film, and rumour has it that it was supposed to be filmed in 3-D, although this didn’t come to pass.

This is the kind of stuff you had to work with when filming with a three-strip camera.

This is the kind of stuff you had to work with when filming with a three-strip camera.

Producer Edward L. Alperson was an interesting character, who set up an independent studio in 1938 with the aid of star James Cagney, and ran a successful business for a little over a year, until the studio went bankrupt after a creative misfire. He rebounded in RKO in the early forties, and then went on to produce an number of B movies under his own company. Invaders from Mars was his only science fiction film, apart from the American versions of Japanese Toho’s The Human Vapor (1960) and The Last War (1961).

Fire away! Morris Ankrum in the background.

Fire away! Morris Ankrum in the background.

The film is interesting inasmuch as it is such a mixed bag – it is all over the place in regards to production values. Some of the sets, like the interior of the UFO and the backyard, are beautifully designed, and there’s a feeling that Menzies has sort of strived for an art film-look. But for each great set, there’s a velour Martian or ten shots of the same re-used artillery explosion. However, the film has the same sort of heart and soul as Robot Monster, that makes it one of those movies that stay with you, and it is certainly better produced and directed than that one. One of the true delights of the fifties sci-fi oddities, whether you choose to see it as a masterful Freudian art film or simply as a so-bad-it’s-good kiddie film. The movie was nominated for a Hugo award for best dramatic presentation.

Janne Wass

Invaders from Mars (1953). Directed by William Cameron Menzies. Written by Richard Blake, John Tucker Battle, Arthur Gardner. Starring: Helena Carter, Arthur Franz, Jimmy Hunt, Leif Erickson, Hillary Brook, Morris Ankrum, Max Wagner, William Phipps, Milburn Stone, Janine Perreau, Barbara Billingsley, Richard Deacon, Bert Freed, Lock Martin, Luz (Luce) Potter, Robert Shayne, Frank Wilcox. Music: Mort Glickman, Raoul Kraushaar. Cinematography: John F. Seitz. Editing: Arthur Roberts. Producion design: William Cameron Menzies. Art director: Boris Leven. Makeup artist: Gene Hibbs. Special makeup: Anatole Robbins. Sound: Earl Crain Sr. Visual effects: Jack Rabin, Irving Block, Jack Cosgrove, Howard Lydecker. Wardrobe designer: Norma Koch. Produced by Edward L. Alperson for Edward L. Alperson Productions.

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26 thoughts on “Invaders from Mars

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