|Submitted by Iain McLachlan |
(Sep 27, 2004)
STRANGER FROM VENUS
Alternate Titles: IMMEDIATE DISASTER; THE VENUSIAN.
Pro Co: Princess Pictures/Rich and Rich/Vitapix
Dir: Burt Balaban;
Pros: Burt Balaban, Gene Martel;
Wr: Hans Jacoby; st: Desmond Leslie.
Assoc Pro: Roy Rich.
Phot: Kenneth Talbot;
Film Ed: Peter Hunt;
Mus: Eric Spear;
Art Dir: John Elphick.
Cast: Helmut Dantine, Patricia Neal, Derek Bond, Cyril Luckham, Willoughby Gray, Marigold Russell, Arthur Young, Kenneth Edwards, David Garth, Stanley van Beers, Nigel Green, Graham Stuart; John Le Mesurier (uncred).
British filmmakers proved particularly slow in joining their Hollywood counterparts exploiting the science fiction boom of the 1950s, initiated by works such as Irving Pichel’s Destination Moon (1950), Christian I Nyby’s The Thing and Rudolph Mate’s When Worlds Collide (both 1951). While there were occasional genre items like Val Guest’s comic Mr Drake’s Duck and Alexander MacKendrick’s satirical The Man in the White Suit (both 1951) along with Terence Fisher’s two unsuccessful ventures for Hammer/Exclusive, Four Sided Triangle and Spaceways (both 1953), science fiction cinema did not really begin to establish itself until almost half-way through the decade, with two American-inspired movies in the form of David MacDonald’s Devil Girl From Mars (1954) and the picture under review here, Burt Balaban’s Stranger from Venus..
A strange craft is reported by a number of people flying across the countryside. The government, through the media, tried to reassure the public that there is probably simple explanation for the strange phenomena. Later, a woman is seen driving along a country road on the way to meet her fiance. The car radio she is listening to is suddenly drowned out by static and she is forced off the road by a bright light, causing her to crash. Shortly after the impact, the badly injured woman is approached by a mysterious figure. In the bar of a nearby guest house, the owner’s daughter is worried when the women’s fiancé phones to say that she has not reached her destination. Her father tells her not to worry and asks her to take a drink to the only patron, the local doctor. As she serves him, a visitor enters the bar, his face unseen by the audience, and takes a seat. The girl offers him food and drink. He refuses the food but accepts a glass of beer. The owner introduces himself after the stranger comments that he does not like the taste of beer. He chooses not to reveal his identity but instead asks if there is a room available and is told that there is indeed. Unable to pay for the accommodation, the visitor offers to instead work in return for board. He unnerves his host when he reveals that he is aware that the girl is in fact his daughter, despite the fact that no one could have divulged the information. The doctor, overhearing the increasingly bizarre conversation, moves over to the stranger’s table. Suspecting that he might be mentally or physically ill, he attempts to take the man’s pulse but is shocked to find that he has none, suggesting that the man is, in fact, dead. At the site of the car crash, the victim’s fiancé and two police officers are shocked to discover that no body can be found, even though the indications are that the crash was so severe no one could have survived. Back at the hotel, the fiancé, a government official, is using the telephone to organise an official search party when the stranger appears and reassures him that the woman is perfectly safe. He is then aggressively interviewed by the official and the police about what he knows of the crash victim’s whereabouts. Aggravated by the man’s lack of co-operation, the police attempt to arrest him but are physically unable to do so. Then the official’s fiancé turns up, dazed and confused but otherwise in good physical condition, the scars she received from her accident, all but healed up. She only remembers vague details about the incident, including the light which caused it, and being rescued by someone. She then recognises her rescuer as the stranger and asks him where he comes from. He then explains that he and his craft have travelled a very long distance…
The biggest influences on David MacDonald’s Devil Girl From Mars were obviously the cycle of hostile alien encounter movies, started by the phenomenal success of The Thing, and typified by material like Fred C. Bannon’s chapter play Flying Disc Man from Mars, Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Man from Planet X (both 1951) and Arthur Hilton’s Cat Women of the Moon (1953), together with the lurid pulp magazine covers from an earlier age. Burt Balaban’s main inspiration in Stranger from Venus, on the other hand, was another, less prolific cycle of films, visitations from apparently more benign alien races, the most famous of these being Robert Wise’s seminal The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).
Apart from the basic premise of having an alien (Helmut Dantine, The Story of Mankind 1957) visiting the Earth as a representative of a more advanced race, concerned at the irresponsible experiments in nuclear power and weaponry carried out by the planet’s governments and scientists, screenwriter Hans Jacoby recycles a number of other elements from the earlier production. These include Dantine’s ability to heal the injured and lame, such as the handicapped leg of the hotel owner (Willoughby Gray, The Mummy 1959), the suspicion and suppressed hostility the stranger instils in authority figures, typified by the likes of the police chief (Graham Stuart, Ghost Ship 1952), and attempts by government representatives, led by the heroine’s smarmy fiancé Derek Bond (The Hand 1960) to trick the Venusian into revealing technological secrets that they can use for their own political advantage.
The most obvious link with the 1951 work, however, is the presence of that film’s leading lady, Patricia Neal. Not only does she appear in a movie which features much of the same plot, she plays a very similar character, making comparisons with The Day the Earth Stood Still inevitable. Her role here is somewhat simplified, with her saved from an otherwise fatal car crash by Dantine’s character, with whom she later forms an emotional bond, creating a romantic triangle with Bond’s government man.
Allusions to the Robert Wise picture are so obvious that it remains a mystery why the studio behind the original, 20th Century-Fox, did not pursue legal action against the makers of Stranger from Venus. The probable reason for this is that Balaban’s picture was considered such a minor and inconsequential work, a British “quota quickie” that could never compete in the same market as their production, instead hoping to gain a release on regional cinema circuits, before obtaining a more lucrative sale to network television, that any litigation would not have been financially worthwhile.
To be fair, Hans Jacoby (Ein Mann Geht durch die Wand 1959) does attempt to introduce some more creative elements into his screenplay. An example of this has the status of the alien visitor altered slightly from Michael Rennie’s in the earlier picture. Instead of being a representative of an intergalactic police action, Dantine is merely a representative of another planet, seeking to set the groundwork for a forthcoming peace conference between humans and his Venusians political masters.
While still seen as a mystical figure, Dantine does not really share the Christ-like qualities of Rennie’s character, apart from the ability to heal, and instead is presented more as a holy man or saint, ultimately becoming a martyr. He is also shown to be somewhat less resilient than his counterpart in the Wise movie, as evidenced by his collapse chasing a car containing the man who stole his communication device. This inherent physical weakness, together with the strict time limit imposed on him to complete his mission, suggests that the form in which he appears to mankind, an average looking human, may only be a temporary vessel for use within Earth’s environment, his true anatomy may not be physical at all, an impression underlined by dialogue exchanges and the film’s final image.
When watching Stranger from Venus, it is very difficult not draw comparisons with its genre companion piece from the same year, Devil Girl from Mars. Both share the same basic concept of an alien visitor landing in a remote locale, with the action taking place at similar venues, the environs of a guest house or inn, with David MacDonald’s story taking place in the Highlands of Scotland. Initially, both films appear to take place in the same milieu as each other, however, important differences in their situations soon become apparent.
When Patricia Laffan’s extraterrestrial villainess arrives at the Scottish guest house, she immediately puts on a show of strength for the assembled humans, with the aid of her death ray and trusty mechanical robot, before erecting a forcefield around the area, effectively cutting it and its inhabitants off from the outside world. The benign alien hero of Stranger from Venus finds the situation somewhat reversed, with the authorities confining his movements to the locality around the inn, erecting a physical barrier in the form of manned roadblocks and enforcing a total news blackout concerning the stranger’s presence, ensuring that rumours of his existence among the populace remain unsubstantiated. He therefore becomes the victim, rather than perpetrator, of hostile activity.
Where the two works part company, though, is in their depiction of what is ostensibly Britain in the mid-1950s. MacDonald’s production features a very theatrical, though still recognisable to its audience, representation of what was intended as a typical guest house, populated by a collection of very familiar British stereotypes, including the aging dipsomaniac and misjudged criminal fugitive. While still retaining a few of these stereotypes, such as the friendly, borderline alcoholic, country doctor (Cyril Luckham), other features of the world in which this plot unfolds are decidedly off-kilter.
The country depicted in Stranger from Venus is never identified by name, an anonymity that extends to towns, cities and districts. Character names are mixture of European and British, while motor vehicles appear to be mainly left-hand-drive, although several of them appear to be of British manufacture. Most of the characters appear to be British, but there are some North Americans (Patricia Neal’s, for example), along with some for whom English may not be their first language, while broadcasters are heard speaking with a form of Americanese.
Seemingly benevolent, there are hints that the government of this nation is in fact totalitarian, casually telephone conversations and controlling what information the media produces. The state is well served with unquestioning loyalty by media representatives, with even initially rebellious journalist Kenneth Edwards agreeing to suppress his exclusive, aware that it will probably never see the light of day. Employees of the state, represented by Derek Bond’s senior civil servant, would not seem out of place in an Orwellian nightmare, with his dedication to his masters overriding everything else, including is love for Neal, and the actions of his political leaders possibly leading to thousands of deaths.
Uniforms worn by the police (who are armed and seem to be some sort of paramilitary organisation) and the army are also unlike anything worn by the respective bodies of the time, adding to the impression that this is not the conventional United Kingdom usually encountered in British films of the time, but rather some near-future dystopia, or some form of alternate universe where the country is a satellite of larger political entity.
This impression is underlined by some decidedly awkward dialogue exchanges scripted by Hans Jacoby, which introduce a number of unusual terms to describe events or things. Although Jacoby had worked in Hollywood since the start of the 1940s and had continued to work there until the early 1950s, the evidence here indicates that he still had issues with the English language.
Special mention should be made of the unusual art direction from John Elphick (Seven Days to Noon 1950). The exterior of the guest house where the Venusian is under house arrest resembles a conventional mock Tudor building, inside, however, the décor could be best described as “minimalist expressionism” with its oversized, spartan sets and unusual ornamentations (including many cuckoo clocks). The expressionist influence is underlined by the use of deep-focus photography from Kenneth Talbot (Battle Beneath the Earth 1967), particularly in the film’s latter stages. Advertisements for British beers in such a distinctly European environment seem positively disconcerting. Interestingly, in his native Germany, Hans Jacoby had a career as a production designer in the 1920s and 1930s, the era in which expressionist cinema was at its height.
The sense of displacement felt throughout the film is added to by the acting style adopted by most of the cast, including stars Patricia Neal and Helmut Dantine, which can be defined as “detached”, with very little in the way of histrionics, even the most dramatic of scenes. This may well suit the environment in which the movie takes place, but it will surely affect audience empathy with the characters’ circumstances, with the ménage a trois, which should have formed the emotional heart of the piece, along with the tragic final scene, failing to achieve any sort of dramatic power.
Some reviewers have suggested that that the approach adopted by Burt Balaban (an American émigré) for Stranger from Venus, with its emphasis on dislocation devices, was a deliberate attempt to convey the feelings of confusion and disruption felt by post-war refugees (alluded to in a teletype message briefly seen in the movie) stranded in alien cultures like the UK, something which his writer Jacoby, a fugitive from the Nazis, could well relate to. Others, much less charitable, have instead claimed it merely to be an exercise in bad filmmaking.
If the lack of emotional core in the performances proves challenging for viewers, then Balaban’s inability to animate the narrative will try the patience of even the most tolerant of viewers, with the plot crawling along to its conclusion. Balaban does inject a few moments of style into the proceedings, notably when Dantine first makes his entrance into the guest house, with creative use being made of a camera track and pan. He also creates occasionally startling single images, usually involving the positioning of performers, but these are merely incidental pleasures, as are the presence of some nicely photographed lakeside locations. At its worst, Stranger from Venus resembles a silent film to which a soundtrack has been added.
By far the most interesting facet of Stranger from Venus is the presence of Desmond Leslie in the credits, the source of the original treatment for the film.
A member of an Anglo-Irish aristocratic dynasty, Leslie served as an RAF fighter pilot during WW2, and established himself as an eccentric writer of both fiction and non-fiction, before dabbling in film production and later becoming something of a pioneer in electronic music. However, he is best known for the 1953 publication of his book “Flying Saucers Have Landed”, co-written with American writer and researcher George Adamski, where he details more than two years of investigative work into the existence of UFOs. The book was an immediate success, being reprinted in many languages, and on the back of it formed the long-running magazine “Flying Saucer Review”, being labelled by some as the founding father of British UFOlogy.
There is obviously some distance between Desmond Leslie’s treatment, The Venusian, and the resultant film Stranger from Venus, but elements from Leslie’s work can still be found. The most obvious is the fact that Helmut Dantine’s alien visitor specifically comes from Venus, as did the extraterrestrials who contacted Leslie and Adamski in their tome.
In “Flying Saucers Have Landed”, it is claimed that the reason why the aliens have never made contact with mankind is because they are wary of our violent methods in dealing with the unknown, something which is echoed in Hans Jacoby’s screenplay, as is the assertion that Earth has been visited many times in its past, observing the population’s evolution. Another concept carried over from the book is that the aliens are able to read minds, although it badly underdeveloped in the script.
The craft in which Dantine travels to Earth (poorly represented on-screen by what appears to a domestic flashlight being lowered into the camera lens) is powered by, as suggested by Leslie and Adamski, by a simple mechanism that manipulates magnetic fields, creating a clean and safe energy source. At the climax of the film, the authorities try to turn this technology against the aliens in order to capture their vessel. Unlike the book’s craft, the one shown here emits a very audible sound.
Apart from the occasional US based venture, Burt Balaban remained active almost exclusive in Europe until his death in the mid-1960s, helming a variety of potboilers toplining second-rank Hollywood talent.
Screenwriter Hans Jacoby relocated to Germany shortly after this film was completed where he worked on a number of international co-productions, mainly comedies and dramas.
After the late 1950s, Helmut Dantine’s onscreen performances became increasingly rare as he took on the role of movie executive in the 1960s and 1970s. He also has three credits as executive producer earned during the latter decade, and was preparing to produce Sam Peckinpah’s final work The Osterman Weekend, when he died in 1982.
Film Editor Peter Hunt later became one of the leading lights during the Sean Connery era of James Bond movies, acting as editor or supervising editor, beginning with Terence Young’s Dr No (1962), rising to second unit director on Lewis Gilbert’s You Only Live Twice (1967), before finally taking the reins himself with George Lazenby’s sole outing as Bond, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). Subsequent credits as director include Gulliver’s Travels (1977) and Hyper Sapien (1986).
Composer Eric Spear will always be remembered as the man who wrote the theme tune to Britain’s longest-running television soap opera, Coronation Street.
©Iain McLachlan 2004
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