Saturday, June 10, 2017

one starry night

INVADERS FROM MARS (1953; d: William Cameron Menzies)

Young David MacLean has big dreams. With his most prized possession in the world, the telescope his father gave him, the precocious ten year old sees the stars with all the infinite wonder and amazement only a young set of eyes can muster—and dreams of following in his scientist dad's footsteps, to the heavens and beyond.

Born during the most calamitous war in our history (and a period rife with accelerated technological innovation), David's read enough dog-eared copies of Weird Tales and Amazing Adventures to know that if we ever do get visitors from another planet, they might not be friendly at all.

Which brings us to tonight...

It's a rare night for star-gazing, and dad's sure to get in on the action.

“Boy, that is sure clear...”

“...but to be able to spot the Great Nebula...”

“And both of you can hike right back to bed!”

“Oh, I uh, was just just telling him...”

“...after all, it's not enough that I'm married to a scientist, but my son has to turn into one, too.”

“Gee, mom, can't we stay up a few minutes longer?”

“At this hour of the morning?”

And she's right, it's just after 4 am; David had set his alarm clock so he could get the best possible look at the Orion constellation, but of course it woke his father as well. 

But following a brief moment's agitation, his good ol' pa got right down there next to him, proud that his boy would go to such measures in the name of scientific curiosity.

Back in bed now, it isn't long before David's again awake, this time from a thunderclap—and strange array of green light in the sky.

And so begins one of the more unique and terrifying science fiction tales of the fifties—David's own Amazing Adventure, if you will...

"Gee whiz!"

“...big bright lights.”


“Come on, I'll show ya!”

“Didn't mother ask you to stay in bed?”

“I did! I was asleep—it woke me up. It was a bright light that lit up everything, and...Dad, it landed right over there!”

While his father assures him he was probably dreaming and that they can go check it out in the morning, it's clear his son has piqued his interest, and waiting simply will not do.   

Leif Erickson pulls double duty (as does mom, actress Hillary Brooke), giving two very different performances before its over.

“Sorry, I woke you.”

“Then what are you doing now?”

“Oh, nothing...I'll be back in a few minutes.”

“George, what is it?”

“Well, uh...David said he saw something land in the field out back. It doesn't make sense, but...he seems so convinced.”

William Menzies' legendary hill set at first looks entirely like a painted backdrop...

...until its disorienting depth is revealed.

Though it isn't clear at first what happened to George MacLean at the top of that hill, it seems something in the sand has sucked him under.

 And a few hours later...


When Mary summons a couple of policemen to the house, they too walk to the top of the hill, vanishing as George did.   

“...where's dad?”

“He left early...”

“Any chance for a cup of coffee?”

Well, that's dad, alright, but what's wrong with him?

“...I was so worried.”

“I stopped over to see Bill Wilson.”

“In your pajamas?”

“In my pajamas, obviously.”



“Where's your other slipper?”

“I said period!”

“Now I guess you'd better tell those policemen.”

“What policemen?”

“I was so worried, George, I called the police. They're out there looking for you right now. Go and call them, David...”

You stay where you are!  They out there now?”

“What's happening George—what is it?”

“I wish you'd please learn to mind your own business.”

“Policemen...they ask questions I can't answer.”

“But what if they do...?”

“Am I gonna get my coffee?!”

“Gee dad, when you were out there, did you see anything?”

“Let's not start that flying saucer nonsense again!”

“Hey, dad?”

“Yeah, what do you want?”

“What happened to your neck? It looks like there's a...”

“Nothing. I cut it on a barb-wire fence.”

“Barb-wire? But there isn't any barb-wire...”

“I cut it on barb-wire, I said!”

And with that swift, vicious backhand, David is suddenly struck with the truth: this man isn't his father at all. Sure, he may look the part, but George MacLean would never hit his son like this. And George MacLean would never speak to his wife that way. No, something must've happened when dad went out to the hill this morning. Something to do with that saucer...yes, it was a flying saucer.

Moments later, the policemen return from the hill acting just as peculiarly as dad, and something unspoken clearly passes between the three. Mom might not have caught it, but David certainly did, and now he knows he must turn elsewhere for help.

INVADERS FROM MARS is one-of-a-kind because it's told entirely from the perspective of a young boy, and being so, the parameters of the narrative are quite different than usual.   

Certain dialogue and actions come not realistically, but as a 10 year old might expect (or understand)—which I know is a lot to wrap your head around, but it will all make sense in the end.

David spots his good friend, Kathy Wilson (Janine Perreau), just before she too is absorbed into the sandpit.

When David tries to tell Kathy's mom what he's seen, his missing friend returns home, which is soon after set aflame.
Red blotches notwithstanding, this is the best available print of this tragically mishandled film.

And so one by one, the townsfolk succumb to an automaton state, effectively becoming Martian slaves (much as would occur a few years hence in 1956's INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS). 

With his distress and paranoia reaching a fever pitch, a desperate visit to the police station yields only further anxiety.

The looming police station set's otherworldly dimensions are an early indication that you're seeing things from a rather skewed perspective.
And in the clink with ya!  But it'll take more than iron bars to keep little David MacLean from the truth.


Director William Cameron Menzies is best remembered today for his legendary work as an art director/production designer. His work was so esteemed that during production of GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), David O. Selznick sent a memorandum to the crew reminding them that “Menzies has the final word” on everything related to Technicolor, scenic design, set decoration, and the overall look of the production, and Menzies would himself direct the famed burning of Atlanta sequence. He would also later (re)shoot that surreal Salvador Dali dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock's SPELLBOUND (1945).  In fact, the term “production designer” (which used to be interchangeable with “art director”) was coined specifically for Menzies and his penchant for affecting the overall look of a film.

On INVADERS FROM MARS, he would carry the reigns of both director and production designer, and his indelible influence can be felt throughout, often transcending the deceptively low budget of this independent production (which was written by Richard Blake, based on a story treatment by John Tucker Battle).

But perhaps the most remarkable thing about INVADERS FROM MARS is that it so heavily relies on the acting of young Jimmy Hunt. He really shouldered a tremendous lot here—appearing from start to finish—and without a terrific performance, this whole thing could've sank like a stone.

Come on, David, get over here!   We require your assistance with this Martian heat ray!
Tragically, the original print passed through several sets of hands over the years, eventually becoming “lost”, and all that remains is what later distributors were able to piece together from various other prints. Like so many other past wonders of the cinema, we'll never again see quite what it looked like upon its original run.  

But what remains is wonderful, nonetheless, and a true testament to the magic of technicolor science fictionand the sleepless summer nights of yore.