Friday, August 18, 2017

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

USA, 92 minutes
Director: Robert Wise
Writers: Edmund H. North, Harry Bates
Photography: Leo Tover
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Editor: William Reynolds
Cast: Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe, Sam Jaffe, Billy Gray, Frances Bavier, Lock Martin

In the old movie business parlance (pre-'60s), a B movie was a low-budget shorter feature, often in a genre style, intended for the back half of double features. The A movie was the main attraction. It was full of stars and class and intended to win awards or make big box office or both. I would have guessed that The Day the Earth Stood Still, a science fiction picture with a theremin soundtrack I have been watching all my life, was a B movie, but no. It had a budget. The special effects are restrained, even primitive, but they are effective. The director is Robert Wise, a student of Orson Welles, whose career spanned The Magnificent Ambersons and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, with The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story, and The Sound of Music between. Patricia Neal, an intriguing versatile cross between a character player and a leading lady, had a career starting to bust out all over. And the score is by Bernard Herrmann, a rising A player, who was among the first to use the theremin for the movies, followed shortly by thousands of B movie science fiction for the rest of the decade. In fact, the spooky electronic instrument was almost exclusively associated with science fiction movies until Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys tore it away for their own purposes. Pere Ubu returned the favor decades later but that's all another subject for another day. With everything else, The Day the Earth Stood Still is basically patient zero for science fiction theremin movies.

Reportedly Wise was interested in this project because he was a believer in UFOs. Indeed, the picture rings with its message, an uplifting one even, a fervent belief in a kind of idealized United Nations vision and proto hippie yearning for peaceful coexistence. These are the things I like about the movie myself—with my appreciation for Star Trek, it's possible that I just like a good stirring liberal skit. But actually there's a good deal of art and old-fashioned craft to this movie. At the same time, it reminds me a little of a friend I spoke to once who was "against" UFOs. It wasn't that he didn't believe they existed, but rather that he didn't believe aliens from other planets deserved the degradation of associating with humanity.

The Day the Earth Stood Still is no big bug romp or evil robot showdown with flying saucers. It has two of those three things but they are the thinking man's version of them. The movie has multiple strategies for elevating its science fiction trappings to tony levels. One is Michael Rennie, who plays the mild-mannered visiting alien. He is at once otherworldly and soothingly rational. He stalks and broods around Washington, D.C., while a robot and two US soldiers (and apparently no one else) guard the flying saucer. The alien calls himself "Carpenter" (I believe that would make it a Jesus reference) and he goes among the people, staying in a boardinghouse where he meets Aunt Bee from Andy Griffith and Bud from Father Knows Best. Meanwhile, humanity is losing its shit just the way we know humanity usually does. Billy (Billy Gray) is the innocent child among us who can see, as the alien gently works him to his ways. "You see, they don't have any wars [where I come from]," he mentions to Billy at one point. "Gee, that's a good idea," Billy says. Yeah, Billy. Cha-ching.

The Day the Earth Stood Still probably derives some of its power, I'm sorry to say, from all the submerged religiosity, but nonetheless it works. The alien and the civilizations he represents are committed to peace and if that means wiping out humanity, well, that's up to humanity. Me, I wouldn't be taking bets either way. The alien demonstrates the god-like powers at his control in dramatic fashion—canceling all electricity and other power sources for 30 minutes (except for hospitals and planes in flight, so as, you know, to hammer home the point about peaceful coexistence). But the picture derives much more power from the generalized postwar nuclear anxiety of the time and connected concerns about totalitarianism. The religiosity and apocalyptic anxiety are a heady brew in tandem. You want to believe in this alien and in fact there's no reason not to. In fact, not believing in him might mean the end of everything. It's a really great story start to finish and this movie is good every time I run into it again.

Out on the nostalgia tip, it's nice to see the good old days when scientists were still heroes, recognized and respected. When the alien needs to contact leaders and is frustrated in the political realm he turns to Professor Barnhardt, a brilliant eccentric scientist (Sam Jaffe). They bond over equations describing celestial mechanics. The Day the Earth Stood Still is interesting also as an exploration of midcentury American values, such as toward immigrants, popular culture, and mass hysteria, which of course are as lively as ever today. Best of all, for me—and maybe this is just the theremin music talking—it carries a genuine sense of awe and mystery about the universe and the future. It's not afraid to look. It's not afraid to go there. You might suspect it's a little rinkydink—that theremin music again perhaps, which may work for some like the zither music in The Third Man does for others. But it's not rinkydink. It's actually one of the great science fiction movies.

Top 10 of 1951
1. The Day the Earth Stood Still
2. A Christmas Carol (Scrooge)
3. Strangers on a Train
4. An American in Paris
5. On Dangerous Ground
6. The African Queen
7. Early Summer
8. A Streetcar Named Desire
9. Alice in Wonderland
10. The Thing From Another World

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