Somehow or other, there are certain films that manage to evade you for years after their release – even though you’ve lodged an interest at the back of your mind to keep an eye out for them. One such film, for me, was ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ which was released into cinemas back in 1976. My interest was piqued at the time when I heard that David Bowie was to play an extra terrestrial in the film and this just seemed to be the most perfect piece of casting ever. After all, Bowie had already been playing his own strange Ziggy Stardust character for some time by then and his own appearance made him different from other performers in the music industry. Furthermore, the film was directed by former cameraman Nic Roeg, whose work as a director had been showcased in ‘Don’t Look Now’ and ‘Walkabout’. Another good reason to want to see the movie. So now, 35 years later, the film has been released on UK Region B locked Blu-ray as part of the Studio Canal Collection giving me my first chance to see it in full. “Wow, this’ll be good!” I thought as I popped the disc in the tray of my player and settled down to view it.
Watching the film brought home to me the difference between liking it and appreciating it as an effective piece of movie making. The picture has gained such a cult status over the last 3 decades that many people claim to love it. Oddly enough, I found that I did not become involved with it, that I was removed or kept at arms length and that I was merely an onlooker to the on screen events. Since the main theme of the film was one of alienation, Nic Roeg certainly succeeded in effectively communicating his message for I most certainly felt alienated from the movie.
Bowie plays Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien from another world on a mission to find the secret of water in order to save his dying planet. He’s separated from his wife and children, all alone in a strange world. He seeks out patent lawyer Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry) to help him set up a company, World Enterprises, as an outlet for inventions that will allow him to raise finance for the building of a spaceship for his return trip home. He comes under the watchful eye of the Security service who begin to investigate him through his financial manager and a professor hired to help him in his project. Along the way he meets Mary Lou (Candy Clark), a hotel maid who looks after him when he suffers from ill effects after using the hotel’s lift. Mary Lou falls in love with him and becomes his constant companion until he reveals himself to be an alien to her. So, does he succeed in his mission? Does he return to his own planet or does he marry Mary Lou and live happily ever after? I’m afraid you’re going to have to watch it to find out as there will be at least two generations of people who will not have seen this film and I’m not about to reveal all as you hardly ever see it on TV.
‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ is an interesting movie that was made under the British Lion banner, after the company had been bought by Michael Deeley and Barry Spikings. No other film company would finance the movie at the time and the fact that David Bowie was attached to the production must have appealed to the producers. There was a feeling that they only realised, too late, that they had a rather strange film on their hands.
Nic Roeg’s intention was to make a film that would not date and, largely, he succeeds in this due to the look and style of the film. It was all shot on location and no sets were built. You could easily say that this is a cameraman’s film as it looks mightily impressive thanks to the collaboration of cinematographer Anthony Richmond and Roeg. It’s quirky, with strange zooms being used and off balance camera angles presenting us with an unusual widescreen image. Some would say that it looks like a film school student project due to the almost experimental way that it was cut together. Taking another view, could it be perhaps that film school students have copied Roeg’s style ever since?
Overall, I had the feeling that the style of the film interfered with its ability to communicate its narrative in a clear manner, due to the lack of standard film language being used to denote the passage of time. We also see the characters with whom Newton interacts age visibly and very suddenly due to the leaps in time, while Newton himself seems to have a ‘painting in the attic’. Most scenes are well lit, with three point lighting and this gives the game away with Mary Lou’s aging make-up. She looks like an actress made up to look older and slightly more subtle lighting could have hidden this. In earlier scenes between Newton and Mary Lou, where she is a younger woman, there is quite a bit of nudity, yet they are anything but sexy due to the clinical lighting and detached approach – probably communicating the lack of fulfilment by Bowie’s character as he is unable to have an emotional relationship with an earthling.
The score is a rather odd mix of tracks, pulled together by John Phillips rather hurriedly to get the film ready for its release date. Jazz, Cole Porter and 60’s pop tunes make up the somewhat confusing music track. The original intention was to have David Bowie write the score with his fee coming from RCA, who were to release the soundtrack album. Sadly his efforts were rejected for the movie score but the ideas were eventually used on his own ‘Low’ album.
If I had to sum up ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ in one word, it would be to call it uncomfortable. We’re never allowed to relax into this weird world and never made to feel welcome. We feel sympathy for Newton - separated from his own family and unable to become truly involved with anyone else – yet we too sense a lack of true feeling. So, for a film about alienation, Mr Roeg achieved his objectives. If I’d seen this movie in my teens it would have impressed me greatly due to the heavily stylised camerawork. Now, having seen many more films, I’m more impressed that the director was able to make his audience feel so alienated, just like the central character. All the same, it doesn’t mean that I have to like it. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s well worth a look.
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