‘The Man from Planet X’ (1951): Hollywood’s first take on America’s UFO/alien fascination

Scream! Factory and M-G-M have released on Blu-ray THE MAN FROM PLANET X, the 1951 sci-fi/horror grade Z programmer from indie producers Aubrey Wisberg and Jack Pollexfen (released by United Artists), directed by cult helmer Edgar G. Ulmer, and starring Robert Clarke, Margaret Field, Raymond Bond, Roy Engel, David Ormont, Gilbert Fallman, and William Schallert.

By Paul Mavis

Shot in a mere six days on less than $50,000, THE MAN FROM PLANET X made a boatload of money by squeaking into theaters before Howard Hawks’ expensive, heavily-hyped THE THING FROM ANOTHER PLANET, to become the first Hollywood movie to satisfy early 1950s Americans’ craze for anything related to UFOs and specifically alien visitors. Thanks to Ulmer’s single-minded zeal to deliver an approximation of stylish A-level entertainment on a decidedly B-level budget, THE MAN FROM PLANET X remains quite watchable today for vintage sci-fi/horror completists. Scream! has included two commentary tracks for this Blu (although they only promote one on the DVD back cover), an original trailer and a photo gallery to go along with this new 1080p HD 1.33:1 black and white Blu-ray transfer of a fine grain print.

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Burry, a coastal village on the bleak, desolate Scottish moors. Holed up in a medieval brock, journalist John Lawrence (Robert Clarke, THE INCREDIBLE PETRIFIED WORLD, THE ASTOUNDING SHE-MONSTER) writes the last paragraph of his last news story: an alien has abducted and enslaved his friend Professor Elliot (Raymond Bond, STATE DEPARTMENT: FILE 649, FLIGHT TO MARS), Elliot’s daughter, Enid (Margaret Field, CAPTIVE WOMEN, FOR MEN ONLY), shady scientist Dr. Mears (William Schallert, TOBOR THE GREAT, THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN), and several Burry townspeople. Lawrence readily admits they’re probably dead…and that he doesn’t have much chance of surviving the night, either.

Flashback. A college observatory outside of Los Angeles. Lawrence speaks with astronomer Dr. Robert Blane (Gilbert Fallman,THE SILVER CHALICE, THE SIGN OF THE PAGAN), who casually informs Lawrence that the recently discovered Planet X is not only bouncing strange waves off us, but is itself hurtling towards Earth, which could cause, at the very least, tidal waves and earthquakes…or possibly total annihilation. Lawrence is going to visit his friend Professor Elliot, who has stationed himself in Burry, Scotland, which is the closet place on Earth to the projected trajectory of Planet X. Once in Burry, Lawrence reconnects with pretty Enid, who six years earlier was a love-struck kid with a crush on the handsome reporter. Unfortunately, ex-con scientist Dr. Mears is there, as well. When Enid stumbles upon a spaceship landed in the moors, and sees a frightening-looking alien peering out from it, Lawrence and Professor Elliot go to investigate—a dicey prospect since the Professor has already once been turned into a temporary zombie due to a mysterious light ray emanating from the ship. The alien pulls a ray gun on them, but soon collapses when he can’t turn on his breathing apparatus. Lawrence helps him, and soon the group is trying fruitlessly to communicate with the invader. Sneaky Mears, however, figures out how to talk with it—a potent combination of geometry and head-twisting—and soon all hell breaks loose, with the embattled citizens of Burry discovering that Planet X, dying from wintry “climate change” (hahaha!), is planning on invading Earth!

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In my television market in the early 1970s, THE MAN FROM PLANET X played quite often out of the nearby Detroit syndication area, showing up on Sir Graves Ghastly and The Ghoul, as well as on smaller independent stations (at only 70 minutes long, it was ideal for a TV slot containing lots of commercials). If anybody paid any attention to it back then, THE MAN FROM PLANET X was probably just considered a brisk early sci-fi/horror B flick with a memorable sense of doom and gloom to it. Anonymous, competent, unpretentious entertainment. Now, since the advent of “film studies” (blech), it’s been elevated into iconic status thanks to the historical significance of its release date (being first always helps), and more notably the critical cult surrounding its director, Edgar G. Ulmer (most viewers, however—even movie buffs—would be hard-put to name one of his movies…if they ever even heard of him in the first place).

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I’ve always been uneasy about the auteur theory; there are way too many variables in terms of actual production to make its application consistent over a director’s career, or to encompass directors of widely varying artistic accomplishments. For example, a strict reading of the theory might point towards studio heads like Darryl Zanuck and Louis B. Mayer as auteurs, too, since they dictated and approved scripts, take selections, reshoots and final edits for every movie that went out of Fox and M-G-M (are they ever mentioned by auteur critics?). Watching THE MAN FROM PLANET X certainly illustrates that Ulmer was capable of delivering a genre piece that was, stylistically at least, leaps and bounds ahead of similiarly budgeted and executed programmers. Ulmer’s horror classic THE BLACK CAT and seminal noir outing, DETOUR, are remarkable achievements by any standard…but he also directed a lot of relatively anonymous, marginal-at-best titles, too. And yet, you can’t have it both ways with him; you can’t state Ulmer thrived and even excelled on the challenges of stingy B production methods…while excusing away his many failures because of those same B production limitations. The auteur theory is easily applied to directors like Hitchcock and Ford and Kubrick—the thematic and visual topography of their titles are as readily accessible to the most casual viewer as they are consistent over decades of numerous projects. But a guy like Ulmer…?

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Perhaps it’s more rewarding to view THE MAN FROM PLANET X’s chief accomplishment in a singular context–a remarkably adroit piece of genre moviemaking under bailing wire-and-chewing gum circumstances—rather than as a through-line that somehow validates other iffy Ulmer projects. Despite a short six day schedule, borrowed sets (all the castle stuff is leftover from Victor Fleming’s JOAN OF ARC), a tiny studio space, and little money, director Ulmer makes THE MAN FROM PLANET X move, giving it a smooth, gliding assurance that you just don’t see in other staid, locked-down B programmers of that time. Now of course newer viewers unfamiliar with how these kind of “Poverty Row” features looked on the screen might well laugh at Ulmer’s painted backdrops and unconvincing model work, but those production details certainly weren’t an anomaly back then for this type of programmer (Universal’s classic monsters series’ upgraded special effects and sets were light years from Ulmer’s here…and they still look fake, so what’s the problem?). But I don’t see how those same scoffers won’t be immediately drawn into this storyteller’s smooth, craftsman-like approach to ratcheting up the suspense, while displaying little embellishments of style that deny merely a competent journeyman’s approach.

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Not all of THE MAN FROM PLANET X works well. Producers Aubrey Wisberg’s and Jack Pollexfen’s (THE NEANDERTHAL MAN, CAPTAIN KIDD AND THE SLAVE GIRL script has an intriguing vagueness to it that only helps feed our confusion and unease; chiefly, we don’t know for sure—at first, anyway—if the alien comes in peace (I love the critics that say Mears is the true villain in the end—liberal critics ache for capitalist pig villains—when Mears’ strong-arm tactics, however morally wrong, ultimately flush out the alien’s plan to invade and dominate our world). The humans’ inability to communicate is staged well by Ulmer; we only learn of his world’s plan to dominate us through zombie slave Mears. It keeps the mystery of the alien intact. But the script also leaves some gaping plot holes—for instance, is it a coincidence or not that Mears shows up in Scotland before the proposed invasion?—while the plot bogs down a bit in the third reel with all the discussions trying to convince constable Engel of the alien threat. Even more problematic is the central villain, the alien: he isn’t particularly menacing, nor does he prove to be all that difficult to vanquish. Just turn off his gas or put him in a headlock (even the zombie angle pulls up slightly lame—how insidious is this mind-controlling light ray when all you have to do is go up to one of its victims and tell them to walk home until it wears off?).

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Director Ulmer smooths over these script bumps with a nicely modulated tone of noirish despair and fatalism, amid his smooth stylistic flourishes. Set in Scotland (via the old Hal Roach Studios in Culver City), most of the scenes are shrouded in shadow and thick fog, not only to add a sinister atmosphere, but to hide the boundaries of the minuscule sets (with all that fake fog—which was nothing more than burning oil—no wonder so many people got sick on this shoot). Fans of THE MAN FROM PLANET X always point to the alien’s first reveal, popping up in the space capsule window (someone suggested the alien looked exactly like scratchy-eyed, needle-nosed Meryl Streep—genius). However, I was struck by the light ray scene, beautifully framed by Ulmer, as the beam, accompanied by a sickeningly piercing high tone, sweeps the moors, looking for a victim (this shot alone has been imitated in countless subsequent sci-fi outings). Ulmer doesn’t forget to provide some grim laughs here, either, my favorite being the perversely calm Dr. Blane, who doesn’t look like he’d mind at all if Planet X wiped out the Earth. It’s too bad there wasn’t more time (or money) for this kind of darkly funny cynicism here, but considering THE MAN FROM PLANET X’s original puny aspirations, what it does achieve is pretty remarkable.

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According to a press release from Scream! Factory, this 1080p HD 1.33:1 black and white Blu-ray transfer comes from a “fine grain print” (I couldn’t find any other info on it). Whatever the source, the resulting picture is a vast improvement over how I remember this movie (snowy, gray and contrasty as hell). The gray scale is creamy and varied, blacks are relatively solid, image fine detail is substantially boosted, grain is tight, and contrast is nicely modulated. Some scratches do appear with regularity, but they’re tolerable. The English DTS-HD Master audio mono track is re-recorded at a hefty level (that piercing light ray effect goes right through your head), with crystal-clean dialogue. English subtitles are available.

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Bonuses include a commentary track that’s split up between author Tom Weaver, director Joe Dante (he’s not credited on the DVD back cover), music historian David Schecter (him, either), and “film historian” Dr. Robert J. Kiss. Weaver’s segment is by far the best. It’s unpretentious and always interesting, with good sidebar info on the way the media handled UFO sightings back during this time period. Good background, too, on how the producers were trying to beat Howard Hawks’s THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD to the punch. Joe Dante’s segment is…largely inaudible, going in and out with such irritating regularity that 1) I got nothing out of it because I basically tuned it out after a few minutes, and 2) I wondered why Scream! even included it here. Music historian David Schecter’s segment plays like a dry lecture read off a ream of notepaper, something that can’t be said about the final speaker, who introduces himself with a florid, “This is Dr. Robert Kiss!” Kudos for showmanship, Doc, but the excruciating minutia of the info is ultimately numbing (did you know that 4% of California theaters showed a double feature of THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD and THE MAN FROM PLANET X? You didn’t? Well…now you do). The second commentary track (even weirder that Shout! doesn’t list it on the back of the DVD cover) begins quite well with Ulmer expert Gary D. Rhodes laying out some fascinating qualifications for Ulmer’s status as a visionary genius…only to abruptly end after a short 11 minutes to segue into an extended interview with Ulmer’s daughter, Arianne Ulmer Cipes. Conducted by a quavering “DVD Savant” (can you imagine?) Glenn Erickson in the expected prissy, fussy, “film nerd” fashion, the stories Arianne lays out are a hoot—it’s the moderator that spoils it (too bad they didn’t get Rhodes to lay out the questions). A photo gallery and an original trailer round out the extras.

Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.

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