The Man who Fell to Earth (Nicolas Roeg, 1976)

This is a remarkably faithful adaptation of Walter Tevis’s novel. To summarize: something crashes in an American lake, and a hooded figure struggles across a landscape, making money by selling gold rings. This is Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie), who buys the services of a patent lawyer Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry) to launch a series of new technological inventions upon an unsuspecting public. As the increasingly wealthy Newton starts a life with former hotel maid Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), a chemistry professor Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn) is first employed by and then fascinated with Newton. Both Mary-Lou and Nathan discover the truth: Newton is an alien, funding his trip back to his drought-stricken home planet. Before the launch can happen, he is captured by government agents and Farnsworth is killed.

It is the final third of the film that is most changed – the mechanics of the unravelling of Newton’s plan, and the moment of capture. There’s a sense of a longer timespan, as all the characters save Newton age significantly. One piece of future world building is having a senior agent (Bernie Casey) as African American with a white wife; the establishment of Farnsworth as homosexual but not criticised as such is perhaps also along these lines. Mary-Lou had been Betty-Jo, and the more philandering Bryce meets  Newton at the latter’s invitation rather than by a trick. Toward the end Newton’s contact lens are fixed onto his eyes, rather than blinding him.

Roeg’s style – which he had displayed to even more complexity with Donald Cammell in Performance (1970) – is to intercut quite different materials: typically sex scenes unfold in parallel with other actions, and flashbacks and anticipations become indistinguishable. It is ambiguous, say, whether Newton is remembering his home life, or these are parallel events. He is able to see pioneer era America alongside the present. And when his family are looking at a kind of flexible television screen, it almost feels like they are watching the events of the film.

Surveillance is a recurrent trope – and watching: obviously in Newton’s eyes, but also in glasses, mirrors, telescopes and cameras. Newton sells his first ring in a shop that also sells television, and a television is the first thing he asks for. He has learned about Earth from watching television, and continues his education by watching about nine at once. It is his own technology that betrays him to Bryce, just as a book of (photographed) paintings first link the two. Newton is of course under surveillance – his driver is an agent – but this seems to be from the moment he crashed on Earth. Was he tracked through space? Were the authorities told he was coming? Or do they just spy on everything?

The painting Bryce looks at is Brueghel’s painting of Icarus, a man who fell to earth and drowned, whilst everyone else goes about their business (we are able to read Auden’s poem “Musee des Beaux Arts” which in part describes the canvas). Newton has fallen to earth – the name suggests gravity – but there’s perhaps also the sense in this version that he is also Fallen; Mary-Lou’s Eve introducing him to alcohol and sex. Eventually, he is betrayed, of course.

Bowie is excellent – and brings his various personae with him. As a Brit in the US he is of course an alien (and director Roeg, producer Deeley and the crew were also aliens). Roeg had worked with a rock star in Performance – Mick Jagger – and cast Art Gunfunkel in Bad Timing (1980), which I can live without. I guess I ought to take a look at Don’t Look Now (1973), although that’s more fantasy than sf.

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2 Responses to “The Man who Fell to Earth (Nicolas Roeg, 1976)”

  1. Adam Roberts Says:

    I wouldn’t describe Don’t Look Now as Fantasy, personally. One third spook-ee, two thirds psychological drama. Plus the notorious sex scene, of course.

  2. flares Says:

    It’s a decade or more since I saw it. Depends on the state of the little man in red running around. It would be as helpful to see it for Roeg’s cutting style (compare and contrast sex scenes – it’s a dirty job etc etc)

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