Steven Spielberg steals from The Man from Planet X

man1There are many similarities between The Man from Planet X (1951) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), which takes a lot of the themes and copies them.  More to the point, Steven Spielberg used science fiction movies of the 1950s as inspiration, perhaps polishing and refining many of the themes from The Man from Planet X, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and others.

This movie begins with a scientific discovery, much like Close Encounters does.  Two scientists discuss this fantastic discovery and the plot is off.  It features a little bit of scientific fancy-talk, but not as much as in Star Trek.  The scientists report that people everywhere are witnessing strange phenomena, just like the people in Close Encounters.  In The Man from Planet X, some aliens make contact and the alien man can only communicate through strange intonations, which is about as close a parallel to Close Encounters as it gets.

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Robert Clarke wondering through the fog

The main character in The Man from Planet X is played by Robert Clarke.  He starred in a string of 50s B-Movies and a lot of television.  The more famous face in this movie is a young William Schallert, who plays Dr. Mears.  He was a television veteran and a great television actor, but also starred in movies with Doris Day, Nick Nolte, Steve Martin and others.  His work as a supporting actor is underrated.  I know him best from his television appearances on Perry Mason and his role in Star Trek’s famous episode “The Trouble with Tribbles”, where he plays the station commander.

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Margaret Field

Margaret Field plays Enid, the token love interest of the movie.  She has to somehow inject a little energy into this stiff, science fiction movie about alien encounters, and I think she does alright.  She has a limited resume, which is curious, because she does seem to have talent and puts in a good effort.  In comparison to other actors in the 50s, she’s inexperienced, which is expected on a cheap production like this one.  They just got lucky with William Schallert before he build his resume into a book, but the rest of the cast is decent even without experience.  This one is carried by character interaction, so the plot is dialogue driven, much like Close Encounters.

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William Schallert trying to look annoyed

This feels like a claustrophobic movie.  After the alien ship is found on the moor, people start to disappear and everything seems to draw in on itself, as if the threat is closing in on the remaining characters.  I think it’s safe to assume that everyone in the movie has watched Frankenstein, because the villagers band together and hunt down the alien who has taken their loved ones.  It’s the same anxiety as in Close Encounters, except the warm optimism is replaced by a Cold War paranoia as everyone is mind controlled and kidnapped like a Communist plot.

As in Frankenstein, the alien is killed wholesale before he can help his alien buddies form an invasion of Earth.  It is very 1950s, and it’s not a very morally complex movie.  However, there’s something about it that I like, because it strikes me as good drama, although marked by bad alien design and a terribly low-budget.   Overall, the weaknesses don’t hamper the story and it contains a lot of the elements that make science fiction great.

Political overtones and scientific exploration are everywhere in this movie, which makes the characters wonder about the alien’s real intentions.  Was it trying to be friendly?  Was it provoked?  Those were the questions asked by the public of people overseas, hoping to prevent the next great war.  Unfortunately, they would have no answers, like the villagers in the movie, and they would have to live through the cold.

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