by Lee Price
Email Sent: Mon, Jun 27, 2016 8:57 am
Hmmm… I’m seriously considering going down one of cinema’s greatest rabbit holes. Has anyone claimed Invaders from Mars yet? …
I’ve been down my share of rabbit holes. There were the hours spent listening to “I Am the Walrus” and “Revolution #9” forwards, backwards, and sideways. And my obsessive dive into the allegations of electronic rigging in the 2004 Bush-Kerry election. And a critical deep dive into the expressionist film The Golem (1921), writing 21 pretty decent essays on the movie but at one point finding a distorted cross in a freeze frame of one shot and building a deeply questionable theory upon it.
You stare at something too long, you can go a little crazy—perhaps start to see patterns forming that aren’t really there. On happy rare occasions, the rabbit hole leads somewhere worthwhile but other times you just get lost underground.
The deeper you dive, the more opportunity there is to lose your bearings. On the second, third, and fourth viewing of a movie, you’re still fresh, discovering new meanings. But by the time you’re on the 51st viewing, or conducting the frame-by-frame analysis, or—in a spectacularly creative approach—simultaneously projecting the movie forward and backward to see if there’s meaning in how the shots superimpose on each other… well, at that point, it might be better to leave the dark room and play in the park with the mimes for a while. In Room 237, a documentary on rabbit-hole explorations of The Shining (1980), one of the interviewees actually did that forward-backward superimposition thing. He thinks he found buried meanings. But it’s more likely he was just lost in the maze.
Email Sent: Mon, Jun 27, 2016 9:12 am
Gulp. Okay, deal me in. Glenn Erickson wrote a brilliant essay on it (Invaders from Mars) in 1999, available in two parts on DVD Savant, and I’m challenged to see if I can build any further on his insights.
It’s All a Dream
Glenn Erickson’s essay was first published in 1999 and is now available in two parts on his DVD Savant column on the DVD Talk website. http://www.dvdtalk.com/dvdsavant/s96InvadersA.html The first part provides a largely objective description of the movie, its history, and its critical reception. The second part, titled “Cinematic Dreamscape,” is Erickson’s interpretation of Invaders from Mars.
I discovered Erickson’s essay several years ago, and still haven’t found anything better on the subject. In his essential book Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties, Bill Warren agrees with my assessment: “Glenn Erickson wrote a fine, two-part essay, the longest and best-informed I’ve read, on the film.” (Warren’s fine write-up benefits from his own historic research and interviews with cast members, but isn’t as courageously interpretive in its analysis as Erickson’s.)
Erickson provides an enchanted lens through which to view the movie. Reading the essay, I yearn to follow him. And sometimes when I squint while watching Invaders from Mars, I can see the masterpiece he describes. But there are other times when I just see poorly assembled stock footage and hear static delivery of inane dialogue. I want to live in a state of suspended disbelief, but the nagging question remains:
Did Erickson go down the rabbit hole? Does he read patterns and themes into Invaders from Mars that aren’t necessarily there?
And the only way to begin answering those questions is to risk going down the rabbit hole myself.
Invaders from Mars and Me
Count me in as an Invaders from Mars boy. (Are there Invaders from Mars girls? All the Invaders from Mars obsessives whom I know are baby boomer male nerds. The movie feels completely locked into an adolescent boy perspective.)
While Invaders from Mars enjoyed some popularity upon release in 1953, its real impact came when the movie was released to television in the late 1950s. Although it inevitably lost the power of its weird Cinecolor process and its depth of field, it strangely gained in resonance as well. In their comfortable suburban homes, boys could watch the story of a boy who looked out the window of his suburban home. And there was a curious leveling of the image in those old TVs—low budget science fiction came out looking eerily similar to the 6:00 news.
I think I must have seen Invaders from Mars for the first time between 1965 and 1970 (when I was five to ten), probably on a Saturday afternoon. Although I watched it approximately 15 years after the movie was made, the movie’s main protagonist—a preadolescent boy—could have easily been a neighbor on my block. His bed looked like mine, his telescope looked like mine, and his window looked like mine. I could easily imagine rising from bed at 4 a.m. and looking out my window to see a UFO descending. This key scene was grounded in my reality. For a suburban 60s kid, it felt archetypal.
Based on many comments that I’ve seen, I was far from the only boy that was pulled into the dream-landscape of Invaders from Mars. As Erickson writes, “Invaders from Mars has a reputation for scaring the hell out of children…” While I’d hesitate to say that it fully scared me, its imagery burned deep into my brain. Returning to the movie years later, I clearly recalled the flying saucer seen through the window, the path to the sandpit, the long corridor of the police department, the alien head in the glass bowl, and the operating room in the spaceship. For me, these images feel primal, as if they pre-existed in my subconscious before I even watched the movie.
Watching it today, as an adult, keeping nostalgia tightly in check, Invaders from Mars can look ridiculous, another low-budget 50s movie tailor-made for Mystery Science Theater derision.
But Erickson suggests a different approach. Forget narrative coherence, he says. It’s a nightmare plunge into the subconscious psyche of a boy in the 1950s.
“William Cameron Menzies’ direction and images make Invaders the most expressive nightmare film in the science fiction genre. The topography of its dreamscape is as vivid as the art film dreams of Fellini and Bergman. The nightmare sums up the shared anxieties and subconscious wishes underlying the sheltered, secure ’50s childhoods of David MacLean and millions of American boys like him.”
And then my left brain kicks in and wonders if this is just wishful thinking, a retroactive justification that clings to a shabby childhood favorite, long after the point when we’re supposed to put childish things away. Where’s the arbitrary line where critical analysis crosses into forever-unverifiable conjecture? Or, in a post-modern world where interpretation is often untethered from history, is the unverifiable conjecture as legitimate as the historically-based critical analysis?
Or… Can I really yoke a movie with bug-eyed aliens in zippered pajamas together with “the art film dreams of Fellini and Bergman”? And can I do this without giggling?
I think a hermeneutic of suspicion is justified.
Entering into Critical Dialogue with Erickson’s Essay
In the second part of his essay, Erickson details his argument that the viewer spends the entire 78 minutes of Invaders from Mars locked within a boy’s dream, crammed with images reflecting juvenile anxieties typical of the mid-20th century. I can accept this premise up to a point, but feel myself growing uneasy when typical low-budget movie flaws are cited as intentional artistic choices. Erickson asks the reader to view the movie’s continuity errors, excessive use of stock footage, lack of detail in the set design, goofy dialogue, and narrative leaps in logic as signposts to the movie’s dream structure. As Erickson writes:
“The film played to audiences insufficiently hip to realize that a ‘silly kid’s film’ could possibly be worthy of serious consideration. Taken literally, Invaders is incoherent. Taken like, say, Lewis Carroll’s Alice through the Looking Glass, it’s a mother lode of engrossing ideas.”
For Erickson, the guiding intelligence behind Invaders from Mars is its director, William Cameron Menzies. As a production designer (his Invaders from Mars credit proudly reads “Production Designed and Directed by…”), Menzies is widely acknowledged as a pioneering genius. He rose to prominence in Hollywood with his Orientalist set designs for The Thief of Bagdad (1924), created a plausible future landscape in Things to Come (1936), and memorably burned Atlanta in Gone With the Wind (1939). In these movies and dozens of others, Menzies not only designed sets that subtly reinforced the scripts’ narratives but even frequently storyboarded the shots to guide the director and cinematographer in their storytelling. In a movie like Gone With the Wind, passed from one director to another during production, you can reasonably argue that Menzies was the central guiding intelligence, the real behind-the-scenes auteur.
But on the occasions when Menzies was offered the director’s chair, results were mixed. His biggest movie, Things to Come, soars as a spectacular visual experience but sinks as weak drama. And, like nearly all the Menzies-directed movies, it struggled at the box office. Out of the dozen movie features that he directed between 1931 and 1956, only Invaders from Mars scored any significant box office success. Perhaps with his production designer mindset, he just couldn’t help being more obsessed with the look of things than the needs of actors, and a resulting emotional detachment somehow transferred to the screen. James Curtis’ biography of Menzies quotes Mary Yerke, script supervisor on Invaders from Mars:
“He (Menzies) was very meticulous. At one point on the interior set of the house, he just fussed and fussed over one of the pictures hanging on the wall, to get it just right. Nobody ever said anything to him. He just kept adjusting it, and I wondered if we were ever going to be able to finish the picture if he kept going on like this.”
But Alfred Hitchcock was a meticulous technician and obsessive storyboarder, too, and also notorious for feigning boredom with his actors… so with different scripts and different circumstances, maybe Menzies would have clicked. Sometimes it’s just bad luck.
Erickson thinks Menzies pulled it all together this one time with Invaders from Mars, creating a minor masterpiece. But even he sometimes hesitates from giving Menzies too much credit. In the section of the essay subheaded Overplayed Villainy, he writes:
“Pokerfaced Police Chief Barrows (Bert Freed) similarly confronts the camera, conveying a chilly alien attitude: “‘Yeah, I’m one of ’em too. Got a problem with that?” Menzies makes the Chief’s weirdness all the more apparent by shooting his signature close-up in reverse.”
At this point, Erickson is descending into the rabbit hole—he appears to interpret a bit of b-movie weirdness as an intentional directorial choice reinforcing the movie’s dream imagery. But then he pops back out of the rabbit hole with a footnote suggesting the effect may have been accidental.
“Shooting Chief Barrows’ close-up in reverse was probably a practical aid. The actor could start on his mark, perfectly framed and in focus, before stepping back away from the camera. But it still comes off as bizarrely pre-Lynchian.”
So which is it? If Menzies used this technique in other movies to interpret their narratives, then we’re fully heading into the mind of a true auteur. But if this is a technique used by Ed Wood, Wyatt Ordung, and Roger Corman on other low budget movies of the time, then it’s B-movie business as usual. And if the effect is unique to Invaders from Mars, was it a post-production choice of editor Arthur Roberts or producer Edward Alperson? File under: Subject in need of further research.
In order to fully enter into critical dialogue with several of Erickson’s arguments, I’d like to proceed by looking closely at the following subheads in the piece: Norman Rockwell Opening, Bizarre Music, A Sex Life for David MacLean, That Wacky Dr. Kelston, Dream Logic Visuals, and Dream Tension. In some cases, I agree with Erickson; in others, I wonder.
Norman Rockwell Opening: Erickson writes:
“In a few brief scenes Menzies and writer Richard Blake sketch a happy family in their modest home just as succinctly as would the famous Saturday Evening Post illustrator. David and his father’s 3 a.m. telescope fun is as wholesome as a fishing trip. The only odd notes are the weird green-bluish colors, and Menzies’ precise use of gigantic choker close-ups. Mary and George MacLean are nurturing and sweet-hearted even when awakened in the middle of the night. They’re parents too perfect to be true.”
I think Erickson’s argument here is faulty.
Here’s my logic: There are three likely narrative structures to the movie: 1) the entire movie is a dream from first frame to last, 2) the opening scene is real life, and then David falls asleep and dreams the entire rest of the movie, or 3) the opening scene is real life, the dream is a premonition, and the closing scene is real life (a flying saucer actually lands). Erickson’s Normal Rockwell argument accepts the first premise… which I would think is the least likely of the three. If you accept premises 2 or 3, then we see David’s parents in this opening scene as they really are and not as David desires them to be in his dreams.
Bizarre Music: Here’s Erickson:
“We assume that the chorus is part of the musical score until the scene in which Sgt. Rinaldi crawls up to the Sand Pit. David blurts out, “That noise!” acknowledging that he hears it too. Do the Martians sing as they suck victims into their sand trap, or is David hearing the soundtrack of his own dream?”
In John Tucker Battle’s original script for Invaders from Mars, the story is presented as straight narrative, with no wraparound dream explanation. The script was subsequently rewritten by Richard Blake who added the bookend dream scenes. The references to the weird noise are not in the original Battle script and therefore may be related to the dream structure. In two scenes in the movie, characters refer to the strange sound that accompanies the sinking sand. The composer (probably Mort Glickman, possibly credited Raoul Kraushaar) responded with a weirdly appropriate and memorable effect.
Therefore, Erickson’s argument that this could be David’s internal dream soundtrack is plausible. Very cool!
A Sex Life for David MacLean: This is the most Freudian of Erickson’s arguments. Poised on the edge of puberty, David confronts his own sexuality within the dream through his characterizations of the girl Kathy Wilson and the movie-star-glamourous adult Dr. Pat Blake (who also functions as an alternative mother figure). I’ll happily look at Pat for a minute or two.
“But the big burner in David’s dreamland love life is the incredibly sexy health nurse Dr. Pat Blake. She wears two-tone high heels and (we eagerly imagine) an intoxicating perfume. A crimson handkerchief sticks fashionably, daringly out of her designer nurse’s uniform… It’s David and Pat all the way…
“Perhaps the ‘real’ David MacLean has a crush on his school nurse, who is sweet to him. Adolescent guilt, confusion and angst arrive when a boy realizes that the older women to whom he’s attracted are going to be ‘gotten’ by males other than himself. The threat of the Martians taking David’s girl away overrides even his anxiety about his parents’ fate.”
Erickson cites three indicators that Menzies deliberately showcased Pat as a projection of David’s desires: first, the way she’s dressed. In his work, Menzies was meticulous about matching clothing with script and set. It’s all part of his approach to storyboarding and production design. Pat’s white uniform offers a vivid contrast with the black outfits of David’s parents in the confrontation scene. And, as Erickson notes, the splash of red provided by her pocket handkerchief is dazzling, and pure Menzies. But, at most, the stylization merely works with the dream explanation without requiring it.
Second, Erickson suggests that the exposure of Pat’s naked shoulder during the underground scenes reflects David’s desires and anxieties. He acknowledges that it’s a typical film ploy—a time-honored strategy to insert sex into an action scene—but then implies that Invaders from Mars handles it differently. “Invaders from Mars isn’t repeating this cliché, it’s revealing its source as a little boy sex-thing. Naked woman aren’t a part of David’s psyche yet… but he’s getting there.” Much as I want to follow Erickson down this particular burrow of the rabbit hole, it still looks a film cliché to me, albeit a really attractively handled one.
And finally there’s the shot of Pat, a close-up filmed from under the Plexiglas table where she lies unconscious, an alien probe slowly descending toward the back of her neck. “This penetration image is charged with concepts of sex and rape, innocence and violation,” writes Erickson. And yes, indeed, it is. But I can give Menzies credit for composing this remarkably memorable image without reference to the dream structure. It’s a classic science fiction image.
So these examples all speak to Menzies skill at tapping into primal imagery, but don’t solidly support the idea that he was intentionally building a dream landscape. They just do things very well that you can also find in other, more straightforward, movies.
That Wacky Dr. Kelston: Erickson writes:
“Junior scientist David has a screwy idea of what real scientists do. His imagined best friend Dr. Kelston works in an observatory, smokes a pipe, and comes up with the darnedest, most ridiculous theories out of thin air, just to lay a foundation of explanations for the Martians that will soon be making their first appearance… Apparently, a scientist’s work is to invent absurd theories out of thin air, and then persist in believing them until they’re disproven.”
Unfortunately, this explanation doesn’t hold up to an examination of Battle’s original script, where there is no dream structure. Dr. Kelston spins his wild stories of martians in that early version, too. And, really, it isn’t that different than the scientific nonsense spouted in many movies of the time. In other words, I regret to conclude that Dr. Kelston’s scenes are not intentionally stupid, but rather unintentionally stupid.
Dream Logic Visuals: To some degree, I think it could be reasonably argued that nearly all of Menzies’ most famous production designs are dream landscapes. Even the opening titles of Gone With the Wind acknowledge its dream aspects: “Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave… Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered.”
Erickson’s most compelling argument for Menzies’ employment of intentional dream logic visuals is contained in an earlier subheaded section, The Sand Pit Hill Set. Noting that it is by far the most extravagant and important set in the movie, Erickson explains how the placement of the winding plank fence—an element used in many other Menzies’ films—and trees subtly employ visual tricks to disorient the viewer regarding the set’s considerable depth. According to Erickson, “It’s a ‘reverse forced-perspective’ optical illusion: a deep set is purposely made to appear shallow. George and Mary seem to get smaller than they should as they reach the top of the hill, and they take a lot of steps to get there. But the trees at the rear of the set don’t give the right ‘perspective clues,’ so it almost looks as if the couple is shrinking as they walk.”
Then Erickson makes one of his most compelling leaps—one that I’m tempted to take even further. He compares the sand pit hill set to a classic expressionist set made for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919). While Menzies only occasionally ventured into expressionism, he was very knowledgeable about the style and appears to have liked it. He certainly knew Caligari, as noted in the James Curtis biography of Menzies. The stills from Caligari and Invaders from Mars that Erickson uses for comparison don’t clinch his argument, but it’s certainly plausible that Menzies used this opportunity to blend the American homespun fence that he’d used in movies like Our Town (1941) with a more expressionist feel. As with most of these arguments, you don’t need the dream structure to make it work, but it doesn’t hurt. And this is where I would add that Caligari may have come to Menzies’ mind because its narrative employs a similar dream structure…
Dream Tension: This is another section that works best in tandem with an earlier subheaded section, A Bizarre Montage Like No Other. Erickson notes how the unusual editing choices contribute to a dream-like feel in the final evacuation of the sand pit hill set. My kneejerk reaction is that this probably shouldn’t be attributed to Menzies, as it appears he was rarely involved in post-production work. In addition, the Curtis biography directly states that Menzies left after filming was completed: “When the film wrapped, Menzies packed up and moved on, (producer Edward) Alperson being uncommonly interested in the editing of his own pictures.”
But storyboarding can strongly indicate editing choices and we know that Menzies was a consummate story board artist. In this case, we know from interviews with the cast and crew that Menzies’ original detailed storyboards were mysteriously stolen immediately prior to the shoot but it’s certainly possible to imagine that he made new sketches to guide the post-production decisions. In any case, some intriguing decisions were made in the cutting room.
“This is the point where this classic alien invasion movie goes Wholly Radical. For some it becomes an editorial tour-de-force, and for others a cinematic joke. The simultaneous actions of ticking bomb, escaping saucer and fleeing troops overlap to a point where time stops progressing altogether. It’s as if Einstein or Stephen Hawking zapped the movie camera. The detonator never hits the Zero mark. David never reaches the bottom of the hill; the saucer never breaks free of the Sand Pit. We’re stuck in the grammatical Present Progressive….
“The odd visions eventually dissolve into a star-scape of planets receding, retreating away. A whole Philip K. Dickian universe is going to sleep….
“I haven’t yet read anything about Invaders that satisfactorily addresses the meaning behind Menzies and editor Arthur Roberts’ crazy quilt editing of these last reels. This is my (Glenn Erickson’s) interpretation.”
Without Menzies on the lot and with editor Roberts and producer Alperson lacking in reputations for innovation, I’d feel hesitant to peg these editing effects as intentional. But as Erickson points out, it sure is a unique and impressive scene. Here’s a tantalizing memory from the Menzies biography, courtesy of actor Jimmy Hunt who played David. “It was like a dream you have where you’re trying to get away from someone and you can’t run, or where you’re trying to tell someone something and no one wants to believe you. Menzies would explain the kind of look that he would want…” With this quote, Hunt appears to suggest that Menzies knew that he wanted the kind of dreamlike stretch-time effects that were achieved in the editing. Story boards, perhaps? File under: Subject in need of further research.
In the Context of Fellini, Bergman and Others
So… dare we call it art?
“William Cameron Menzies’ direction and images make Invaders the most expressive nightmare film in the science fiction genre. The topography of its dreamscape is as vivid as the art film dreams of Fellini and Bergman.”
Invaders from Mars is overtly a dream movie, just like The Wizard of Oz (1939)? Questions only emerge when trying to discern how many of the unusual elements in the movie were intentionally placed there to sustain a dream-like atmosphere.
Like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), it surprises with a last-minute emergence from the dream, casting ambiguity over the interpretation of everything that happens before.
Like Dead of Night (1945), it can be interpreted as a circular nightmare, building to a surreal montage, then rinse and repeat.
Like Meshes of the Afternoon (1945), the dreamer runs but never reaches the destination, looping back into an earlier scene instead.
Like Wild Strawberries (1959), the dream can be read as revealing the desires and anxieties of the dreamer.
Like 8 ½ (1963) and Juliet of the Spirits (1965), exuberant production designs bring subconscious thoughts to the surface.
Like The Exterminating Angel (1962) and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), it traps the viewer within the repeating dream.
And like the experimental shorts Outer Space (1999) and Dream Work (2002) by Peter Tscherkassky, dream landscapes can distressingly explode into nightmare.
Invaders from Mars richly deserves to be on this shelf, unresolved ambiguities and all.
File under: Subject in need of further research.
Battle, John Tucker. Invaders from Mars original script. http://leonscripts.tripod.com/scripts/INVADERSold.htm
Curtis, James. William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come. Pantheon Books, 2015.
Erickson, Glenn. DVD Talk, DVD Savant: The Ultimate “Invaders from Mars” Savant Essay
Warren, Bill. Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties, McFarland, 2009.
Note: Much of the material drawn from this essay from the James Curtis biography of Menzies originally derives from an article, “Invaders from Mars,” written by Robert Skotak and Scot Holton and published in Fantascene, vol. 4, 1978. I was unable to access a copy in researching this essay.