The Man from Planet X (1951)
The WEIRDEST Visitor the Earth has ever seen!
Arguably, Edgar G. Ulmer directed four bonafied classics in People on Sunday (1930), The Black Cat (1934), Detour (1945) and The Man from Planet X (1951). What’s impressive is each film represents effective low-budget filmmaking in four separate genre.
People on Sunday offers an observant quasi-documentary view of people interacting with each other and the environment of Weimar-era Berlin. The Black Cat is pure horror and presents the first teaming of two creature feature powerhouses with Karloff and Lugosi. The Black Cat garners my vote for the best horror film ever made. I would have loved seeing Ulmer directing Karloff and Lugosi in subsequent Universal films. Detour is brilliant film noir described as ahead of it’s time and the first b-movie chosen by the Library of Congress National Film Registry. The Man from Planet X is one of the earliest sci-fi “visitor” films, arriving in theaters days before The Thing from Another World (1951) and a few months before The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).
The Man from Planet X has a lot to offer for a film made on a budget under $50,000. The film is set on the foggy, isolated and eerie environs of an island off the coast of Scotland. The atmosphere sets the mood. You can almost visualize Basil Rathbone walking up in a deerstalker cap. The film is told in noirish flashback from L.A. reporter John Lawrence (Robert Clarke):
I don’t know if she is still alive or not. They’ve had her now for the past 24 hours. I’m equally uncertain as to the fate of her father Professor Elliot. Both are probably dead. The odds are one-hundred to one I too will be finished before another sun rises. But tonight I’m going to try to fight for my life and those larger issues so perilously at stake affecting all mankind. If I fail. This seems most likely. The consequences to humanity that defy the imagination. As the only trained reporter who has been in a position to observe the terror from it’s inception and as one of the few living humans who has actually met face to face The Man from Planet X, I will try and set down the strangest story a newspaper man has ever covered…
The film is well cast with Clarke, Margaret Field (Enid Elliot), Raymond Bond (Professor Elliot) and especially William Schallert as the treacherous Dr. Mears. The score is reminiscent of Universal’s horror films and reminds me a bit of Franz Waxman’s score for The Bride of Frankenstein. I also like the miniature sets, matte paintings (check out the tower shot at 08:15), the “diving bell” spacecraft and especially the title alien. He’s completely unique in filmdom! The closest match I can think of is Ralph Kramden as “The Man from Mars” (or a pinball machine) in the Honeymooners. With his oversize blister helmet, corrugated plumbing feeds, valves and glowing panels, the visitor seems more appropriate for a Chuck Jones’ cartoon. He’s the quintessential space alien. Ask any kid to draw a man from mars and chances are you might get a variation of The Man from Planet X.
The plot holds your interest. Reporter Lawrence travels to a remote Scottish Isle to interview Professor Elliot who is studying the newly-discovered Planet X from a make-shift observatory located in a an old castle. Professor Elliot lives with his daughter (Margaret Field —close your eyes and listen to her— Yes, Sally Field sounds just like her mom). Also present is assistant Dr. Mears. We learn early on that Mears has a shady past and is not to be trusted.
A mysterious airfoil made of an exotic metal is found. Could this be from Planet X? Mears is fascinated with exploiting the properties and origin of the remarkable technology.
The Man from Planet X moves along at a decent pace, and doesn’t take long to reveal the alien. We see him approximately 19 minutes after the titles or about a quarter way into the film. The scene is actually a bit startling, with stark lighting and a grotesque closeup of the visitor. In 1951, the shot must’ve surprised moviegoers.
The Man From Planet X is grand fun. It offers the usual trappings, which even in 1951 were probably a bit cliché —a trance-inducing ray gun, a mysterious new planet, a rocket-shaped spacecraft reminiscent of Flash Gordon, weird new metal alloys, a back-stabbing side-kick, foggy moor sets, and a bubble-headed alien. Is this film a classic? I say yes! Keep in mind what Ulmer achieved with a budget under $50,000.
1951 was a mighty fine year for sci-fi, including:
- The Man from Planet X,
- The Day the Earth Stood Still, Robert Wise classic
- The Thing from Another World, Howard Hawks classic
- When World’s Collide, a colorful and entertaining George Pal production
- Unknown World, an interesting low-budget “at the earth’s core doomsday” film
Here’s my favorite scene where William Schallert bitch-slaps the alien. How can you go wrong with this? They don’t make ’em like they used to!