Greetings, people of Earth. I mean, Manny Farber fans. Over at my blog Some Came Running, I've been looking at Farber's picks and positions on his best films of 1951 (the title of his piece for The Nation reprinted in Farber on Film puts the phrase best films in quotation marks), and doing my own humble sort-of updates, as it were. As The Auteurs is conducting a really lovely and imaginative retrospective on Farber's work, I asked my overseers if I could bring one such consideration over here, and I'm honored to be included in the series. For write-ups on the prior six pictures, go here and work backwards.
We start with Farber: "Science-fiction again, this time with ideals; a bouyant, imaginative filtering around in Washington, D.C., upon the arrival of a high-minded interplanetary federalist from Mars, or somewhere; matter-of-fact statements about white-collar shabby gentility in boarding houses, offices, and the like; imaginative interpretation of a rocket ship and its robot crew; good fun, for a minute, when the visitor turns off all the electricity in the world; Pat Neal good, as usual, as a young mother who believes in progressive education."
While in a prior summation of Nyby/Hawks' The Thing From Another World Farber approves of that film's lack of "progressive-minded gospel-reading about neighborliness in the atomic age," here he doesn't much mind the ideals. That could have to do with the ideals stated. Alien Klaatu, played by Michael Rennie, doesn't visit Earth to tell its denizens that they need to get along better—indeed, he makes clear at several points that he is not concerned with the "petty squabbles" of our nations, isn't he the high-hat?— but rather that they need to knock off the tech explorations (combined with general earthly belligerence) that might threaten the setup on Klaatu's own planet. (Which, as Farber notes, is not named in the film. 20th Century Fox head Daryl F. Zanuck actually asked in a story memo if the title The Man From Mars had ever been used; it hadn't, and it wasn't. I shouldn't single out Zanuck's one bad idea without specifying that his other notes were largely adopted, including his suggestion of a password for placating the indestructible robot Gort, which gave birth, of course, to the immortal phrase "Klaatu Barada Nikto.")
I daresay it also has to do with the fact that the ideals are, by and large, dealt with, not quite lightly, but with the least heavy hand possible. They animate the story (he screenplay by Edmund North is adapted from the story Farewell To The Master by Harry Bates); indeed, the "ideals" provide the motivation for Klaatu's visit. But they're woven into the fabric of the narrative in a terrifically unobtrusive way, with Hugh Marlowe's Tom—the boyfriend of Patricia Neal's character Helen—serving as an apt stand-in/microcosm for putatively well-intentioned human stupidity. It is in the unfussy realism with which certain of the earth environments are depicted—Farber's aforementioned boarding house, and various offices, both impersonal (any of the government building settings) and cozy (the lair of sympathetic scientist Professor Barnhardt, played by Sam Jaffe)—that takes the picture's values out of the realm of abstraction and give them a distinct humanist heft.
The "imaginative interpretation of a rocket ship and its robot crew;" yes, this film's flying saucer provided something of a template that hasn't been much deviated from in almost 60 years. Of course, said template was likely derived from actual accounts of UFOs; still, the production design team of Thomas Little and Claude Carpenter, who reportedly consulted Frank Lloyd Wright on the spacecraft's appearance, should be noted and lauded for their enduring vision. (Marlowe would go up against similar-looking discs, with more moving parts, in the Harryhausen stop-motion-effect classic Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers in 1956.) On the other hand, screen robots have come quite a long way since the now weirdly-rubbery looking Gort...and for all that, his visor, seen at work in the largely otherwise unrepresentative poster below, is still one of the coolest 'bot gimmicks going.
Farber cites the "good fun" of the sequence in which Klaatu makes the world stand still; it's a brisk and frequently scarifying montage (one in which director Wise's training in editing is readily apparent...as is the much-parodied opening scene depicting round-the-world broadcasts about the approaching spaceship), and that Farber could call it "fun" indicates an...unusual disposition. Or does it? The sequence contains shots that portend major calamity—stalled traffic around Times Square, the Arc de Triomphe, etc.—and alternates them with weird minor inconveniences such as a milkshake machine refusing to function. The sense of humor and the sense of spectacle go hand in hand here, but Farber's also keying in on one of fantastic cinema's most potent powers: to show us things we've never seen, and maybe barely conceived, before.
It's worth recalling that prior to The Thing and Earth, science-fiction was not a particularly popular or prolific film genre. Yes, back in the 20s such pictures as Metropolis and Woman on the Moon were sensations, but the sci-fi vogue waned pretty spectacularly after 1936's Things To Come. I know it's never truly historically viable to make such generalizations, so let me just leave it by saying that few people can name their favorite science-fiction film of the 1940s. My roundabout point was that The Thing and Earth wound up being signposts in a sci-fi revival that continues to influence popular cinema to this day. (We will not speak here either of John Carpenter's wonderful 80s rethink of The Thing, nor of last year's execrable Earth update.) But as much as Farber liked these pictures, they didn't seem to compel him to follow the genre energetically; scouring the index of Farber on Film, I found only one other sci-fi film cited (unless you count Brewster McCloud as sci-fi); that would be 2001: A Space Odyssey.