The Man Who Fell to Earth: Criterion Edition Review

This review contains plot spoilers. If you wish to avoid them, please go directly to “The DVD” below.

A spacecraft lands in a lake in New Mexico. Out of it steps Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie): tall, thin, pale, with orange-red hair, sporting an English accent. Shortly afterwards, Newton pays a visit to top-flight lawyer Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry), carrying with him nine patents for as-yet-undreamed-of technological advances that will make the both of them extremely rich. Farnsworth does not know Newton’s real purpose, which is to fund a space programme to save his dying planet…

Walter Tevis (1928-1984) began his career as a SF writer with a short story in Galaxy magazine in 1957, and wrote several novels before his early death. However, he’s best known for three novels, largely because they were filmed: The Hustler, The Color of Money and this one. Other novels, some of them by all accounts superior ones, are now in out-of-print obscurity, as screenwriter Paul Mayersberg laments in his interview on this DVD. That’s the price to pay for versatility: he wasn’t an easy writer to categorise. Criterion have admirably packaged a paperback reprint of The Man Who Fell to Earth in this set, so we have a chance to compare book and film. The novel has a straightforward, linear narrative, written in third person from various viewpoints including Newton’s. The result of this is that we know the reason for Newton’s mission very early on, while the film withholds this information until around the halfway mark. Other differences are small: the woman who enters Newton’s life is called Betty Jo in the novel, Mary-Lou in the film (played by Candy Clark). In the film, Farnsworth is a homosexual (something that’s treated admirably casually for the mid-70s): his sexuality is not mentioned at all in the novel. The X-ray machine in Newton’s medical examination towards the end of the story blinds him in Tevis, but Roeg and Mayersberg simply have it fuse his contact lenses to his eyelids. The ability of the film to be outside Newton’s head allows an extra layer of paranoia: we see a mysterious man watching Newton’s landing, and this man does not reappear until the end: still silent, still watching, implying that the authorities knew about their alien visitor from the outset. There are other differences, mostly to do with the logistics of filmmaking: New Mexico was a “right to work” state, which did not object to a British film and crew shooting there, which is why the film’s location was moved there from the novel’s Kentucky.

Newton is a typical Roeg protagonist, who is placed outside his usual milieu, and struggles to adapt to it, with tragic results as he descends into sexual and alcoholic addictions. (Allusions to Icarus are quite intentional.) Much of the tragedy comes from mutual misunderstanding: between alien and Earthling, and (as often in Roeg’s work) between men and women.

Although the film became an instant cult item due largely to Bowie’s presence, critics were a little more wary, some of them finding the film difficult to follow, if not incomprehensible. The film does require some attention from the viewer, but it’s certainly not that: if anything, of the films of Roeg’s great period it’s one of his most linear, a few flashbacks aside. (American viewers had more difficulties as the film was shortened by twenty minutes, of which more later.) Some of the difficulty is the result of our bad viewing habits, as Roeg tends to show rather than tell, and relies on us to keep up with him. We see that time – many years – have passed as the major characters age before our eyes, while Newton remains the same throughout, but this is not spelled out as other directors might have done - with “five years later” captions, say.

Other directing choices surprise us with their originality and aptness. Take our introduction to Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn). We first see him as a college lecturer with a penchant for sleeping with female students. A conversation in bed is filmed so that, although the dialogue is continuous, the woman Bryce is in bed with changes from shot to shot. What does that tell us about Bryce, and how much more economical and cinematic that is than pages of expository dialogue? Not everything works: a scene where Newton looks over a field and we see ancient settlers reacting in fright to an alien visitation, simply looks odd. Flashbacks to Newton’s past life on his desert planet (with Candy Clark again playing his wife) tend to be a little kitsch, but are fortunately kept short. The pace is measured and the film is certainly overlong at two and a quarter hours.

The scene with Bryce and his students referred to above was one of those cut by the original US distributors, along with Mary-Lou urinating in fright as she sees Newton in his alien form for the first time, and also the sex-and-guns scene late on. This may have had something to do with censorship, as some of this material would quite likely have attracted a MPAA X rating. (That wasn’t the sole reason for the edits: another scene that went missing was the late one with Mary-Lou and Bryce, where he is dressed as Santa Claus.) As it is, the film is notable for a sexual frankness – involving full-frontal nudity of both sexes – that seems all the more remarkable in 2005 when mainstream cinema has taken a far more prudish turn. Such frankness is a characteristic of Roeg’s 70s work. Farnsworth’s gayness and a passing line of dialogue that hints that Newton is bisexual are notable for their rarity in Roeg’s work, which has otherwise been forthrightly straight. (Before anyone mentions Performance, I'd suggest that the bisexual eroticism in that film is mainly Donald Cammell’s contribution.) This explicit sexuality is not there simply to titillate: as in the Bryce example, it develops our understanding of the characters. The greatest sex scene in Roeg’s work has to be the one in Don’t Look Now, but The Man Who Fell to Earth contains one that runs it a close second. The scene between Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland in the earlier film is an expression of love and coming together in grief at the loss of a child. The late scene between Bowie and Clark here, cut to the song “Hello Mary Lou” (sung by John Phillips with guitar from ex-Rolling Stone Mick Taylor), is much darker. It’s a falling-out-of-love scene: companionship mutated into possessiveness, with much fetishistic play with guns. It’s a stunningly filmed and edited sequence. As ever with Roeg’s 70s films the contributions of DP Anthony Richmond and editor Tony Lawson can’t be overstated.

Tevis’s Newton is a particularly tall man (6’6”) and you wonder how well this film would have worked with Roeg’s first choice in the role, the 6’9” writer and director Michael Crichton – not least as Crichton’s acting ability is unknown. The novel was published in 1963, before Bowie had begun his career, but the English rock star could have been born to play the part. Thin, pale, frail, with an epicene beauty, Bowie is quite compelling in the role, which remains perhaps his best screen work. Torn, Clark and Henry are all excellent in support. Apollo 13 commander James Lovell appears briefly as himself, and there are uncredited appearances from Terry Southern (as himself) and exploitation-movie queen Claudia Jennings. (Incidentally, the Southern-scripted film End of the Road is one of those playing on one of Newton’s many television sets, along with The Third Man, Billy Budd and others.)

The Man Who Fell to Earth is a film which has worn the last thirty years very well, which makes the proposed new version more than a little redundant. (I haven’t seen the 1987 TV adaptation, which is apparently far more conventionally made. There’s also a stage musical.) It’s a film that could perhaps only have been made in the 1970s – not least because Roeg was at the height of his powers in that decade – as it’s a downbeat story, a tragedy of potential unfulfilled, for more cynical and less optimistic times. Despite some overlength, it’s a rich work that repays multiple viewings.

The Man Who Fell to Earth is leased by Criterion from StudioCanal, and is encoded for Region 1 only. The DVD comprises two DVD-9 discs, with a paperback reprint of Tevis’s novel packaged with it in a cardboard slipcase.

The film was Roeg’s first (of two) shot in Scope, and it is transferred in its original ratio of 2.35:1, anamorphically enhanced. There really is nothing to fault this: it’s the best this film has looked outside a cinema. The image is sharp, colourful and detailed with excellent shadow detail and strong blacks. First rate. The film was previously released in UK Region 2 by Warners and a comparison follows, Region 2 first, then Criterion:

The Man Who Fell to Earth was a little too early for Dolby Stereo, though some cinemas did play it with a four-track magnetic soundtrack. That is presumably the source of this disc’s sound, which is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 (analogue Dolby Surround). Although Roeg has often made striking use of music (songs especially) in his films, he has never seemed much exercised by the possibilities of multi-channel sound. His next film made in anything other than mono was Castaway a decade later, and that tended to use the surrounds for music, ambience and the occasional digital effect. That’s pretty much the case with The Man Who Fell to Earth. It’s mostly monophonic, though one exception is the scene of the crowds at the rocket launch, which features some lines of dialogue coming through the surround speakers. (The Warner R2 disc has a Dolby Digital 5.1 track, which some may prefer, though it’s a remix from the original track.) There are twenty-four chapter stops, the final one being Criterion’s trademark colour bars.

Remaining on the first disc, we have a commentary. This originates from 1992 and was previously heard on Criterion’s laserdisc release. It features Buck Henry solo, Roeg solo and Roeg and Bowie together. As so often with Criterion commentaries, it’s both interesting and informative, and well edited together with few dead spots.

The second disc begins with a video interview with Paul Mayersberg, shot in Paris in 2005. This is 16:9 anamorphic and runs 26:16. Mayersberg discusses Tevis’s novel and describes how he and Roeg sought to find cinematic equivalents to the themes and images contained in it. Mayersberg is a lucid speaker and this short item is quite enlightening.

Walter Tevis appears in a radio interview from 1984. He is a fluent speaker, talking about his childhood in Kentucky (including periods of hospitalisation with an alleged heart condition) as well as about his past of gambling and alcoholism. Tevis seems upbeat, with the novel of The Color of Money waiting publication and Martin Scorsese’s film of it in the works – poignant with hindsight, as he was to die the same year this was recorded. The interview is divided into four sections and runs 24:22.

More recently filmed were interviews with Rip Torn and Candy Clark, both of whom look back fondly on the experience – Clark especially, as she and Roeg were an item during the shooting and she rarely had quite so good a role before or since. Their interviews are intercut with clips from the film, the whole running 24:52.

Brian Eatwell was the production designer and May Routh the costume designer. Their interviews are audio-only, heard over film extracts, stills and sketches, and home movies taken at the time. Eatwell’s interview runs 23:36, Routh’s 19:37. Also included with these two interviews is a small stills gallery featuring Routh’s costume sketches.

Next up are a set of trailers: two US theatrical trailers (the first with a voiceover from William Shatner) and a teaser, the international trailer and two international teasers, plus a TV spot. Four more stills galleries follow: David James’s still photographs (with an audio introduction by James), Roeg’s continuity book, snapshots taken on location bu executive producer Si Livitnoff, and a gallery of poster designs for some of Roeg’s films including this one.

Finally, two printed extras. A 28-page booklet contains a chapter list, a set of DVD credits and two articles. These are “Loving the Alien” by Graham Fuller and “The Novels and Confessions of Walter Tevis” by Jack Matthews, both of which are well worth reading. I’ve already discussed Tevis’s novel, a paperback copy of which is packaged with the DVD. One sign of its time is how short it is: only 160 pages and some 65,000 words.

A pretty comprehensive set of extras. The only real gaps I can think of are the lack of any word from DP Anthony Richmond (who is still alive as I write this) or composer John Phillips (the one from the Mamas and the Papas, who died in 2001). The Region 2 release has a 25-minute documentary “Watching the Alien”, which is not included here. But otherwise this is pretty well exhaustive, in the Criterion tradition…as well as exhausting!

The Man Who Fell to Earth is a film with a large and continuing cult following. It’s a key film for Bowie, as it is for Roeg, who was one of the greatest directors working in Britain in the 1970s. Criterion’s DVD does it proud.

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