I watched two movies at home over the weekend. The Saturday night Netflix DVD on my computer was THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH; Sunday’s DVD was THE WRONG MAN … two films made 20 years apart by two very different British directors. In one corner we have Nicolas Roeg, a man who never knew a story that he could not twist and distort. In the other corner we have Alfred Hitchcock … the master of suspense. Roeg and Hitchcock, born almost exactly 27 years apart, hailed from London and shared their love for all things filmmaking … yet that’s where their similarity ends.
When Alfred Hitchcock released THE WRONG MAN in 1956, he had already made more than 40 films in 30 years. At the time, the world knew what to expect from a new Hitchcock movie … suspense, violence, intrigue, suspicion, murder, and a touch of his trademark dry humor. THE WRONG MAN has all these things and more. It’s actually a one-of-a-kind movie in Hitchcock’s Canyon … as it’s based on a true story, and it was one of the rare Hitchcock movies that didn’t include a cameo from the famous director (instead, Hitchcock advertises the movie in the shadow before it begins).
The plot of the film is both simple and complex … In New York, a low-key musician, husband and family man named Christopher Emanuel ‘Manny’ Balestrero (played by Henry Fonda) is accused of robbing various stores and companies of safe after he is identified by multiple witnesses … Despite many claims of his innocence, Manny is booked for assault and armed robbery, and locked up in jail. The rest of the movie centers on Manny trying to prove his innocence and clear his name. However, there is much more to it than that. Never get over your own childhood phobia of police officers … Alfred Hitchcock really lets you experience all the details of what it’s really like to be charged with a crime, questioned, booked, fingerprinted, and incarcerated … all in layers featuring a terrifying soundtrack by Bernard Herrmann and realistic black-and-white cinematography by Robert Burks.
You could feel Manny’s terror and anguish at every step of the incarceration process. However, just when you think you have complete control over THE WRONG MAN, the story takes an unexpected turn … focusing on Manny’s wife, Rose (well played by Vera Miles), and the devastating effect her arrest has. husband has in it. So the story is not just about clearing a man’s name … but also saving a family from destruction. THE WRONG MAN chases you and taunts you with his tension … taking his time to construct the various nuances of the story. Although not as successful or popular as Hitchcock’s other films, THE WRONG MAN is no less great and lives up to the best of them. I’ve never been a Hitchcock fan before, but I’m learning …
In 1976, 20 years after the release of THE WRONG MAN, Nicolas Roeg released THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH. Roeg had an illustrious past, having worked for years as a cinematographer and second unit director for artists such as David Lean and Francois Truffaut before directing his first film, 1970’s PERFORMANCE. In 1976, Roeg established himself as a director of dreams and nightmares. . Like Hitchcock, Roeg also focused on suspense, violence, intrigue, and murder … but he also adds sex as part of the equation.
Also, instead of telling a linear story to serve up a great story or theme … Roeg chooses to create a collage of scenes and sequences that feel more associated with the subconscious than the conscious mind. With this style in mind, Roeg made THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH … a strange story about an alien from another planet who comes to Earth to help save his dying family. Our alien, who for some reason is British, calls himself Thomas Newton (perfectly chosen David Bowie). Armed with alien technology, Newton makes his fortune from patents on several groundbreaking products (such as instant film) and forms a billion-dollar conglomerate with his business partner Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry).
In passing, Newton meets a talkative hotel worker (Candy Clark) who becomes his friend, lover and partner. Juxtaposed with Newton’s story is the story of Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), a womanizing college professor who leaves his job to work at Newton’s company. Despite his enormous wealth, Newton has his mind set on water … drinking it, being close to it, and (perhaps) bringing it back to his dying desert planet to save his wife and two children. However, something happens … his corporation becomes too large, dominating the US economy … and Newton is distracted by alcohol, sex, and television … As the years go by, his dream of seeing his alien wife and children once again fades. In the distance.
At the same time fascinating, disturbing and disconcerting. THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH gives you a glimpse into a warped story, but it only offers a glimpse of clarity. It’s not that the movie’s story is shrouded in mystery … it’s just that the narrative itself takes the viewer in tangled ways … it never goes where you want (or hope) it to go. Like a typical Roeg movie, THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH is not entertaining or necessarily funny … but it is interesting and certainly worth watching.