Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Director: Robert Wise                                      Writer: Edmund H. North
Film Score: Bernard Herrmann                         Cinematography: Leo Tover
Starring: Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe and Sam Jaffe

One of the great science-fiction classics from the fifties, The Day the Earth Stood Still was part of a concerted effort by studios other than Universal to get into the genre during that decade. Impressive sci-fi films like Them! at Warner Brothers, The Thing from Another World at RKO and independent films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers flooded the market where, in the previous decade, Universal had dominated the horror film genre. The film is directed by Robert Wise, who began his career at RKO with Orson Welles before moving on to the Val Lewton horror unit, but he had his greatest successes the following decade with big budget musicals. The screenplay by Edmund North was based on a short story by Harry Bates called “Farewell to the Master” from 1940. Wise also brought onboard the great Bernard Herrmann to score the film. He had worked with the composer at RKO on the Orson Welles films and Herrmann did a tremendous job utilizing the theramin following composers like Miklós Rózsa on Spellbound and The Lost Weekend and Franz Waxman even earlier on the score for The Bride of Frankenstein.

The film begins with a UFO circling the Earth at 4,000 miles per hour. The military personnel of various countries are all tracking it and eventually it lands in Washington D.C. When the ship finally opens up, surrounded by U.S. military forces, a humanoid figure comes down the ramp telling the people he has come in peace. But when he takes something out of his space suit a nervous soldier shoots him. That’s when the giant robot emerges from the ship and destroys all of the military weapons with a laser coming from his helmet. Michael Rennie is the humanoid, named Klaatu, who wishes to speak with all the countries of the world because there is some danger to all life on Earth, and he doesn’t care about the political difficulties of his request. He heals himself in a day and then leaves the hospital without the knowledge of the military in order to go among the people to learn more about them. Renni finds a rooming house where Patricia Neal and her young son Billy Gray also live. Renni befriends Gray, and he asks the boy one day to take him to the Einstein equivalent in the film, Sam Jaffe, and he tells the scientist who he really is and what his mission is. Beings from other planets know that Earth is developing space ships. If they do, they’ll be able to shoot their atomic weapons at other planets and the rest of the galaxy will not allow it. Earth must stop, or be destroyed.

It’s a great premise and goes counter to every science-fiction film convention. The aliens are not evil, not set on destruction or conquest, but they are still far superior intellectually. The aliens never respond with violence unless attacked first. As with most sci-fi films of the fifties there is an atomic theme present. In this case it’s part of the story itself, a subtext of Mutual Assured Destruction involved in Klaatu’s final warning to Earth. The other sub-textual element is the Christ analogy. Screenwriter Edmund North added that to the original story in the hopes that it would remain subliminal. But the Breen Office caught onto it right away, which necessitated a few changes in the dialogue to make it clear that the aliens didn’t have the power to bestow life itself. While a lot of films from this period have a Communist scare subtext, this one really doesn’t. There are a couple of overt references at the dinner table at the boarding house, but that’s it.

What lifts the film above others in the genre from the time, beyond the unique story, is the acting. Michael Renni is terrific as the alien Klaatu. He’s tall and calm, learning from the people around him and not making stupid mistakes. As a superior intellect, he really demonstrates it here. Patricia Neal is also wonderful, and the hope that the two of them will get together, while utterly impossible, is one of the great undercurrents of the film. Hugh Marlowe, a poor man’s Richard Carlson, is the requisite jerk, dating Neal but all the time angling for what he can get out of Renni’s discovery. The great Sam Jaffe gets far too little screen time, unfortunately. He’s one of the great treasures of classic Hollywood cinema and every second of him is wonderful. Though it’s not the most exciting sci-fi film from the period, it has a certain elegance that is undeniable. The Day the Earth Stood Still remains a classic American film and one of the cornerstones of the science-fiction genre.

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