3/10 Patricia Neal, the star of The Day the Earth Stood Still, reprises her role in in this cheap British knock-off from 1954. The film was the brainchild of eccentric ufologist, WWII pilot, occultist, writer, filmmaker and electronic music pioneer Desmond Leslie, and didn’t even get a theatrical release in the US. Confined to a British inn, the movie is plodding and derivative, but still manages to hold the viewer thanks to a decent cast and some interesting script quirks.
Stranger from Venus (1954, UK). Directed by Burt Balaban. Written by Desmond Leslie & Hans Jacoby. Starring: Patricia Neal, Helmut Dantine, Derek Bond, Cyril Luckham, Willoughby Gray, Marigold Russell, Peter Sallis. Produced by Burt Balaban & Gene Martel for Rich & Rich Ltd. IMDb rating: 5.4/10. Tomatometer: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
By 1954 the British had entered the science fiction market again after some trepidation, although it was still a genre reserved for cheap knock-offs. However, the hugely popular live TV-series The Quatermass Experiment (1953, review) had left the British public hungry for more. Hammer and small outfits like Gainsborough had started dabbling in the genre with mixed results. 1954 had already seen the campy romp Devil Girl from Mars (review), a film in which a superwoman in S/M gear comes to dominate Earth’s men, and mistakes a small Scottish pub for London. Stranger from Venus is a similarly low-budgeted movie, which also takes place in a British inn (or is it British?).
This US-British co-production was dubbed as Immediate Disaster when it was released in the US, and later home video releases have dubbed it The Venusian. Before we get into the rather interesting background of the film, let’s have a quick look at the plot.
Just like in Devil Girl from Mars, the lion’s part of the proceedings take place in a very British-seeming inn in the middle of nowhere. Young Susan North (Patricia Neal) drives home from a meeting with her friend, and is blinded by a light in the sky, which causes her to crash her car – seemingly to her death. Later the same evening a strange man appears at the inn. We know he is strange because he only drinks water and we just see the back of his head. And he assures Susan’s boyfriend, a government official called Arthur Walker (Derek Bond) that Ms. North is quite alright. And fair enough, she later walks into the inn – her wounds miraculously healed, and with no memory of who or what saved – or resurrected – her.
Turns out the strange visitor, played by Helmut Dantine, is actually a stranger from Venus, in possession of superhuman powers of healing, invulnerability and mind-reading. It turns out he is a scout for a Venusian mothership that has planned to land in ”Britain” to hold a conference with all world leaders to warn them about the dangers of mankind’s newfound discovery of nuclear weapons. He himself holds a minor conference around the pub table with some dignitaries from the ”British” authorities as a warm-up. He himself is most interested in working in the inn’s garden, which he finds enchanting.
However, Arthur Walker and his friends in government have no interest in assembling any world leaders (which they also explain is quite impossible in times of the cold war), but instead plan on capturing the Venusian mothership as it lands, by knocking out its magnetism-based propulsion system, and steal their technology. When the Stranger realises this, he sets out to warn the mothership not to land. There are two problems, though. First, the Stranger has conditioned himself to stand the atmosphere of Earth, but can only survive for a short period of time – that is exactly up until the moment the mothership is to land. And second, he can warn no-one, as Walker has stolen his communication device. This, he explains to Susan, is disastrous, as the Venusians will not tolerate any hostility and will set about destroying the Earth if Walker and his lackeys try to intervene. What will happen? Can Susan convince her soon-to-be ex-boyfriend to hand the communication device back to the Stranger, thus saving the Earth, or will it be laid to waste by the Venusian super-weapons? Does the Venusian have any chance of making it home, or will he perish on Earth? And will he and Susan kiss before the film is over? Will you remember any of the other characters of the movie once it is over?
If you have seen Robert Wise’s sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, review) the plot of Stranger from Venus will sound awfully familiar. In fact, one can view it as a very blatant ripoff of that movie. Even to the point that the film has the same lead actress, Patricia Neal, basically reprising her role. Helmut Dantine’s stoic but kind-hearted alien is clearly modelled on Michael Rennie’s iconic portrayal of Klaatu, as well. However, there is no robot or really any special effects, the plot is rather non-existent, the characters are completely devoid of any personality and the dialogue is quite rotten. As usual in British films, there is not really any problems with the actors, who do what they can with the material, but the material being what it is, they fail to elevate the film to anything more than the cheap knock-off that the movie is.
So, you might ask yourself, how did it come that Patricia Neal ended up in British a remake of her own film made for a small-time production company, by American producer/director Burt Balaban? Well, the Neal involvement is easier to explain. According to Stephen Shearer’s book Patricla Neal: An Unquiet Life, Neal and her husband, famed author Roald Dahl had just bought a summer house in Britain, and needed money to fix it up. Encouraged by Dahl, Neal took the part, as it would only be a couple of weeks’ work in the British summer. For more on Neal’s career and her both tragic and inspiring life story, head over to my review of The Day the Earth Stood Still.
What most modern reviewers fail to mention, however, is that Stranger from Venus has a much more interesting backstory than one might first imagine, and it boils down to the name of the person who wrote the story draft for the film: Desmond Leslie. The fantastic life and work of Desmond Leslie would be enough to fill a book, and indeed it has done so. Leslie was an Irish aristocrat from an eccentric lineage. He once reached out to the publisher of a tourist guide that called the Leslie clan ”mildly eccentric”. This was an error, according to Leslie, who maintained that the Leslies were indeed ”very eccentric”.
Leslie’s godfather Lord Evan Morgan was privy chamberlain to two popes, as well as a man who conducted black magic ceremonies for Aleister Crowley at his estate. One of the people who often took part in these ceremonies was Leslie’s father Shane, who was a devout occultist (and Catholic) and believer in the supernatural, as well as a collector and publisher of ghost stories. He was also cousin to Winston Churchill and personal friend of Leo Tolstoy. Desmond grew up in the same circles as Brinsley le Poer Trench, who became a famous ufologist and occultist in his own right, and rose to notoriety when he inherited his brother’s seat at parliament in the eighties and forced the British politicians to discuss the matter of extraterrestrial visitation and UFOs in four different parliament sessions. Trench also worked as an editor for Leslie’s magazine Flying Saucer Review in the fifties.
Desmond Leslie was a Spitfire RAF pilot during WWII, by all accounts a brave pilot, though in his own words he destroyed more of his own planes than the Germans’. He was once chastised for sky-writing a four-letter expletive with his plane, and another time for knocking off a pub sign with his wing while flying below a bridge for fun. After WWII he moved to London where he published several novels and worked as a freelance journalist. Here he also met budding actress, singer and burlesque artist Agnes Bernell, whom he married. Although he had always had a strong interest in the occult, his passion for UFOs and aliens seems to have begun in 1951, when he started work on his Magnum Opus, Flying Saucers Have Landed. Published in 1953, the book laid out the theory that Venusians had visited Earth for the first time in 18,617,841 BC, and have continued to do so since. The Venusians, according to his theory, are peaceful and wish us well. His claims were further underlined by a 50-page chapter written by famous American ufologist George Adamski, in which he describes his encounter and discussion with a visitor from Venus, named Orthon. In the discussions Adamski had with the blonde Venusian, dressed in something resembling a one-piece ski suit, the Stranger from Venus warned him about mankind’s newly invented nuclear power.
Of course, it may or may not be a coincidence that both Leslie and Adamski started formulating their ideas of aliens warning mankind about nuclear annihilation in 1951, just after The Day the Earth Stood Still was released. Leslie founded Flying Saucer Review later in the fifties and became a worldwide authority on UFOs. But he also continued to write books on a wide range of subjects, mostly fiction, such as the satirical The Jesus Files, where he outlines the Roman inquiry into the death of Jesus as a modern courtroom drama.
But Leslie’s interest in film had started much earlier, as he delivered his first screenplay (My Hands are Clay) in 1947, and both wrote and directed the crime drama Stranger at My Door in 1950. It was while filming this movie that he, to save money, opted to compose the music for the movie himself. This led him to start experimenting with so-called musique concrete – an avantgardistic style of music based on recorded sounds manipulated through mixing desks and synthesizers. Leslie built the world’s first multi-track mixing desk in the early fifties, and in 1960 he released the LP Future Music, seen by some as a pioneering work of electronic music. It rose to some cult fame when it was re-released in 2004. Leslie’s music was used in a number of TV series, including Doctor Who. He may be best known to a general audience for punching The Evening Standard’s theatre critic Bernard Levin in the face on live TV in 1962, after Levin had given a poor review to Agnes Bernell’s one-woman Bertolt Brecht show. In her autobiography Bernell later wrote that one of the reasons the show got bad reviews may have been that Leslie’s home-made loudspeakers had been moved under the stage just prior to the opening night, without the personal supervision of Leslie, which resulted in muffled sound and low volume. She thinks Leslie’s outburst was born more out of personal embarrassment than out of indignation on his wife’s part. The two divorced in the seventies. Please google Desmond Leslie for more stories on this man’s amazing life and career, it is quite an astonishing tale.
So – that’s the origin of the story for Stranger from Venus. According to John Rimmer at Magonia Leslie’s writings extended to radio and TV as well, and he writes that Leslie at some point tried to sell the idea of a six-part TV series called The Venusian. Rimmer claims that the idea was turned down because the story resembled The Day the Earth Stood Still too much. It is unclear whether this was before or after Stranger from Venus.
But evidently American producer/director Burt Balaban didn’t have any such qualms, although he did hire German hack writer Hans Jacoby to polish the script. Jacoby has no other connection with sci-fi. He was originally an art director in Germany prior to WWII. As a Jew, he fled the country in 1933 when the Nazis rose to power, first working in France and later in Hollywood, mostly on B movies. He returned to Germany in 1954. Stranger from Venus is his only British film.
Balaban was also a rather interesting fellow, although less is documented about him than Leslie. Balaban’s father Barney Balaban worked for Paramount and was the first one to introduce cooling systems into his movie theatres in Chicago, making them the most popular cinemas in town during the summer. Barney Balaban worked his way up the career ladder to become something of an institution as long-running president of Paramount Pictures between 1936 and 1964. Burt, while part of the large movie family Balaban, didn’t make much of a mark on the industry. His main claim to fame is that he co-directed and produced Murder Inc. in 1960, a role that gave a young Peter Falk his first Oscar nomination. Falk, of course, would later rise to fame as the inimitable TV sleuth Columbo.
Much of Balaban’s work in the fifties seems to have been done in Britain, where he worked for a small company called Rich & Rich Ltd., which seems to have had a TV deal with another short-lived American company called Princess Pictures. While some of the movies Balaban made did get a theatrical release in the States, some, like Stranger from Venus, only aired on TV overseas. What prompted Balaban to make this film may remain a mystery, since most of his other output consists of crime and spy dramas.
The film’s direction I’d say, is fairly competent, but very stiff and hampered both by a non-existent budget and a bad script. Patricia Neal tries her best to breathe life into her character, but her failure to do so cannot be put on her shoulders. Austrian-born anti-fascist, actor and later director and producer Helmut Dantine in the title role is very charismatic, and lends the film at least an air of dignity. Of course one can wonder why a Venusian who speaks all the world’s languages would have an Austrian accent. On the other hand, Russian submarine commanders have been known to have Scottish accents. Dantine had something of a heyday during WWII playing Nazis, but his career began to wane towards the end of the thirties, and his attempt and directing never really took off. He produced three Sam Peckinpah films later in his career.
Derek Bond as the scheming government man trying to convince Susan North to marry him is quite good, but again, the script sets its limitations on the schizophrenic role. Bond rose to fame very early in his career, playing the lead in Ealing Studios’ lauded Charles Dickens adaptation The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1947), his second film. He continued this with a big supporting role in the likewise praised Scott of the Antarctic (1948). However, despite a few leading roles, his film career never topped these two early wins as far as commercial success was concerned, and in the fifties he found himself appearing in B movies such as Stranger from Venus. His career stretched long, though, and he also appeared in the crappy 1998 sci-fi film Visions, released on DVD as Blind Sight. He was also known as an ultra-conservative president of the Actors Equity union, and was active on stage.
As is usually the case with British films, the movie is filled with good actors. But for our purposes, let’s pick out a few, like Cyril Luckham, who played the lead in the futuristic sci-fi series The Guardians (1971), a role which crossed over to Doctor Who at one point. Willoughby Gray appeared in the not-so-highly-regarded Solarbabies in 1986, and Nigel Green had a walk-on part in Gorgo (1961). David Garth had recurring roles on two of Britain’s biggest sci-fi shows, Doctor Who and The Avengers, and appeared in the sad Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987). Stanley Van Beers had bit-parts in The Quatermass Xperiment (1955, review), known as The Creeping Unknown in the US, and The Man Without a Body (1957). Peter Sallis appeared in multiple episodes of Doctor Who and the sci-fi horror film Scream and Scream Again (1970), starring Peter Cushing, Vincent Price and Christopher Lee, but is best known and loved for voicing the titular character of Wallace in the stop motion movies about Wallace & Gromit.
The movie was panned when it was released in Britain, and didn’t even get a theatrical release in the US (or if it did, it was very limited). However, it’s clear that the filmmakers were actually trying to do something more than just a cheap knock-off, evident in by the fact that the script has some interesting tweaks. One is the fact that the film isn’t set in contemporary Britain. This wasn’t clear to me when I saw the film, as it indeed has a very British setting. But the actual country in question is never identified by name, neither are any cities or counties. Furthermore, Sleaze Diary points out that there are details that don’t necessarily register with someone outside of Britain – such as the black fascistoid uniforms worn by the police officers, and the fact that one of the characters are identified as ”Chief of Police”, which is a term title is foreign to Britain. Arthur Walker works at the ”Ministry of the Interior”, a term used in continental Europe, but not in Britain, where the closest equivalent would be ”Home Office”. There’s also the fact that the character names – Walker, North, Dixon – have a much more American ring than British, and a small detail is that radio broadcasters speak American English.
There is a feeling that the film is set in an authoritarian state: as soon as the alien is identified, the area around the inn is quarantined and placed under an information blackout. Walker carries out his duties to the state with unflinching loyalty, even if it would mean catastrophe. Even a reporter brought on to the site has no qualms whatsoever about withholding all his information until he gets a green light by the authorities. There’s also casual phone bugging and communications monitoring. Overall, the film carries a sense of detachment and dislocation, highlighted in the laconic acting the absence of any histrionics usual for the genre. Iain McLachlan at SFFWorld suggests this could be a method by Balaban and Jacoby to recreate the feelings of confusion and disruption felt by post-war refugees – Balaban was an American living in Britain and Jacoby, of course, had fled the Nazis; ”Others, much less charitable, have instead claimed it merely to be an exercise in bad filmmaking.”
If indeed this detachment was intentional, it doesn’t quite register in the final product, and Stuart Galbratith IV at DVD Talk claims that it ”plays like a pretentious theatrical production made by people lacking the talent to come anywhere close to pulling it off”. Richard Scheib at Moria calls it talky and domestic, and writes that it ”suffers from a pedestrian and plodding dullness to its direction”. It does have a respectable 5.4/10 rating at IMDb, but with only about 250 votes, this may be skewed in favour of fans. However, it is rather entertaining as a one-time watch, and I do find the sombre tone and its lack of camp quite refreshing in a genre that is often filled with scream queens and overacting. The effects are very few and far between. The only effects of the movie are the glowing communication device and a really bad UFO effect at the end of the movie. But the filmmakers should get credit for omitting effects rather than doing them badly.
The characters are highly illogical and unrealistic, but if one views the film as a fable rather than as a realistic depiction, this isn’t necessarily a problem. But since the movie doesn’t quite manage to convey the symbolism of the story up front, this angle fails, and instead turns the film dull. The science is pure gobbledy-gook.
Composer Eric Spear is known for creating the theme music for the long-running TV series Coronation Street. Hairdresser Barbara Ritchie also worked on Doppelgänger (1969), Quest for Love (1971) and Star Wars Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Wardrome supervisor Laura Nightingale worked on TV series like The Champions, Department S and Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense, as well as the film The Horror of Frankenstein (1970). Editor Peter Hunt would later rise to fame as a top editor for a number of James Bond films during the Sean Connery era, and also directed the flopped but ultimately well-regarded George Lazenby installation On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). He also directed the family sci-fi film Hyper Sapien: People from Another Star (1986).
Stranger from Venus (1954, UK). Directed by Burt Balaban. Written by Desmond Leslie & Hans Jacoby. Starring: Patricia Neal, Helmut Dantine, Derek Bond, Cyril Luckham, Willoughby Gray, Marigold Russell, Arthur Young, Kenneth Edwards, David Garth, Stanley Van Beers, Nigel Green, Graham Stuart, Peter Sallis. Music: Eric Spear. Cinematography: Kenneth Talbot. Editing: Peter R. Hunt. Art direction: John Elphick. Makeup artist: Nell Taylor. Sound: John Cape. Wardrobe: Laura Nightingale. Produced by Burt Balaban & Gene Martel for Rich & Rich Ltd.