Hidden Netflix Gems – The Man Who Fell to Earth

Hidden Netflix Gems is a new feature designed to help readers answer that burning question, “What should I watch tonight?” It will be updated every Saturday before the sun goes down.

For all of his musical influence and his famous/infamous turn as Jareth the Goblin King in the Jim Henson production Labyrinth, my original introduction to the cultural phenomenon that is David Bowie came from a strange, somewhat disjointed British science fiction film from the 1970s. The first film in which Bowie ever appeared as a leading actor, The Man Who Fell to Earth is a surreal, satirical, and ultimately very bleak look at American values, as seen through the eyes of a visitor from another world. In much the same way that the Martians in H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds find themselves vulnerable to Earth’s diseases, Bowie’s alien finds himself far from immune to the destructive allure of earthly pleasures like alcohol, sex and television.

Thomas Jerome Newton, as Bowie’s alien calls himself while on Earth, lands in the New Mexico desert in search of water to bring back to his home planet, Anthea, where his wife and children are in danger of dying from a sever drought. Using the advanced technology of Anthea, he gains incredible wealth and a great deal of notoriety by patenting various inventions and becoming the head of World Enterprises Corporation, a technological conglomerate he forms with the help of patent attorney Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry). Newton’s ulterior motive with the company is to construct a space vehicle with which to ship water back to Anthea, but he soon becomes distracted from this purpose by a dalliance with Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), a hotel chambermaid who introduces Newton to alcohol and sex, and with whom he eventually moves into a house in New Mexico.

Meanwhile, Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), Newton’s confidante at World Enterprises, suspects that Newton is not of this world and manages to find proof via an X-ray photo he takes without Newton’s knowledge. As Bryce considers what to do with his newfound knowledge, Newton sinks deeper into an alcohol-fueled haze of despair, doing little more with his days than drinking and watching multiple television screens at once and finally driving both Bryce and Mary-Lou away from him as his true, alien self is revealed to them. It is not that Newton is portrayed as an evil alien, however, but rather that the temptations of earthly existence have corrupted him and his original, purely good intentions.

Director Nicolas Roeg tells this strange, slowly paced story with the distinctively mesmerizing visual style and unusual editing techniques he brought to other great films such as Walkabout and Bad Timing. Like these films, The Man Who Fell to Earth is so subtle and contemplative that it may require multiple viewings to parse out all of its meaning, but its bold and daring imagery and quietly menacing, otherworldly atmosphere make it a joy to behold, and well worth more than one viewing.

  

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The Small Back Room

Life during wartime is getting to English weapons researcher and bomb disposal expert Sammy Rice (David Farrar). He’s in constant pain from an artificial foot and his preferred method of medication, whiskey, is highly problematic. It gets worse because his struggle to avoid drinking is just one of a few thorny issues that’s giving Susan (Kathleen Byron), his very serious girlfriend, some equally serious doubts about their future. Oh, and those damned bloody Nazis have taken to leaving a new kind of tricky unexploded bomb laying around, and it’s killing local soldiers and Prof. Rice’s own colleagues.

Based on a famed wartime novel by Michael Balcon, 1951’s “The Small Back Room” is one of the less well known films from “the Archers,” the writing and directing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Best known for ravishing and slightly insane Technicolor spectaculars like “A Matter of Life and Death,” “The Red Shoes,” and their masterpiece, “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,” the influential pair also had a flair for creating genuinely captivating black and white thrillers and love stories. “The Small Back Room” is a bit of both and possesses a degree of complexity and implied sexuality unusual in its time, and also today. Still, the film maybe bites off a bit more than it can chew resulting in a relatively distancing second act, and one semi-dream sequence involving a giant whiskey bottle shows how Pressburger/Powell’s admirable creative risk-taking could sometimes lead to unintended laughs. Still, there is humor, fine drama, suspense in the climactic bomb disposal sequence, and an amazing cast of some of Britain’s best local talent. This may not be the Archers at their absolute best but, trust me, that’s no insult.

Click to buy “The Small Back Room”

  

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