Monday, 28 March 2011

The Man from Planet X (1951)

No-one could match Edgar G. Ulmer when it came to making interesting and provocative little movies for virtually no money. His 1951 science fiction feature The Man from Planet X is a case in point.

A planet, known as Planet X, has been observed heading toward the Earth. It’s not going to collide with us but it will pass very close indeed. An astronomer has set up a makeshift observatory in an ancient “broch” or tower on an island off the coast of Scotland. When a spaceship is discovered to have landed in the island it’s clear enough this must have some connection to the mysterious Planet X.

The spacecraft is found by an American newspaper reporter who had been tipped off that something unusual was happening on this remote island. He and the astronomer’s daughter (being a movie scientist he naturally has a beautiful daughter) encounter an alien being. He doesn’t appear to be hostile and he accompanied them to the broch. All efforts at communication are in vain but the alien remains friendly until the astronomer’s sinister colleague Dr Mears steps in. Motivated by a desire to force the alien to reveal technological secrets that will make him rich Dr Mears threatens the alien.

Now they have a hostile alien on their hands and even worse a hostile alien with mind-control powers who can turn the villagers into unwilling slaves or soldiers.

The basic plot seems like a very straightforward alien invasion story, but things are by no means as clear-cut as they first appear. In his classic film noir Detour Ulmer used an unreliable narrator to create one of the most ambiguous crime movies ever made. In The Man from Planet X all of the most essential information about the plans of the alien comes from an equally unreliable source. Like the central character in Detour Dr Mears is self-serving and cowardly and we have strong reasons to doubt his truthfulness. He also has strong motives for lying about the alien’s intentions. So is the alien really the spearhead of an invasion force? If there are more alien on the way can we be certain they are hostile?

Quite apart from the lack of a common language there’s the question as to whether the intentions of the aliens would even by comprehensible to humans.

The movie was made on sets left over from an earlier movie about Joan of Arc. As wa generally the case for Ulmer he was faced with the problem of having no money and an unbelievably tight shooting schedule (a mere six days). How do you make a science fiction movie under those conditions? Ulmer’s solution is to use painted backgrounds and cheap models and lots of fog effects to disguise the absence of any location shooting and the deficiencies of the sets and props. In the hands of most film-makers the results would be irredeemably cheesy but Ulmer had an uncanny ability to make such solutions work.

The use of the old tower and the moors (even though they’re all painted) gives a very gothic feel to the movie which is quite effective, making the ambiguities of the plot seem more mysterious. Ulmer apparently was responsible for much of the production design and even painted some of the backgrounds

The makeup effects for the alien are also dirt cheap but oddly effective.

The acting is reasonable enough by B-movie standards although the village constable gets a bit grating after a while.

The Region 1 DVD from MGM’s Midnite Movies range looks good. As usual with these release the extras are limited to a trailer.

Edgar G. Ulmer’s films might be as cheap as the cheapest Z-grade movies but they more than make up for this with a degree of visual ingenuity and moral ambiguity that puts them well above the level of the average ultra-low budget movie. Definitely worth seeing.

No comments: